Friday, March 11, 2011

Qaddafi's Blitzkrieg in Libya

Qaddafi Forces Bear Down on Strategic Town as Rebels Flee

By Anthony Shadid
The New York Times
March 10, 2011

RAS LANUF, Libya — The momentum shifted decisively Thursday in an uprising that has shaken Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s four decades of rule, as rebels fled from this strategic refinery town under a sustained land, air and sea assault by government forces.

The fighting was a stark illustration of the asymmetry of the conflict, pitting protesters turned rebels against a military with far superior arms and organization and a willingness to prosecute a vicious counterattack against its own people.

Usually ebullient rebels acknowledged withdrawing Thursday, even as the fledgling opposition leadership in Benghazi scored diplomatic gains with France’s recognition of it as the legitimate government and senior American officials’ promise to talk with its leaders.

“We are coming,” Colonel Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, told reporters in Tripoli.

Western nations took new steps to isolate the Qaddafi government, but the measures stopped well short of any sort of military intervention and seemed unlikely to be able to reverse the momentum.

The cautious response underscored what is at stake in a race against time in the most chaotic and unpredictable of the uprisings to shake the Arab world — whether the opposition can secure more international recognition and a no-flight zone to blunt Colonel Qaddafi’s offensive before rebel lines crumble in the coastal oil towns west of Benghazi.

“It’s tough these days,” said Mohammed al-Houni, a 25-year-old fighter at the front. “There is no comparison between our weapons and theirs. They’re trained, they’re organized. They got their training in Russia and I don’t know where. We’re not an army, we’re the people and even if we had weapons, we wouldn’t even know how to use them.”

Only days ago, rebels were boldly promising to march on Surt, Colonel Qaddafi’s hometown, then on to Tripoli, where opposition leaders predicted its residents would rise up. But the week has witnessed a series of setbacks, with a punishing government assault on Zawiyah, near the capital, and a reversal of fortunes in towns near Ras Lanuf, whose refinery makes it a strategic economic prize in a country blessed with vast oil reserves.

There was a growing sense among the opposition, echoed by leaders in opposition-held Benghazi and rebels on the front, that they could not single-handedly defeat Colonel Qaddafi’s forces.

“We can’t prevail unless there’s a no-fly zone,” said Anis Mabrouk, a 35-year-old fighter. “Give us the cover and we’ll go all the way to Tripoli and kill him.”

That seemed unlikely, though. Even without warplanes, Colonel Qaddafi’s government could still marshal far superior tanks, armor and artillery, along with the finances and organization to prosecute a counteroffensive. Given the disarray, some rebels took pride in their success in holding the lines at Ras Lanuf as long as they had. Soviet-made warplanes struck Brega, more than 100 miles from the front line on the road that resupplies the rebels, as well as several spots on the way to Ras Lanuf.

At noon, a rocket slammed into an unfinished mosque there, sending clouds of dust over dozens of worshipers and incensing fighters who condemned it as a sacrilege.

“God is greater than the bombs!” people recalled shouting after the rocket detonated. “God is greater than Muammar el-Qaddafi. God is greater than any criminal!”

From the minaret, the mosque’s loudspeaker, unsilenced by the attack, blared the words of the cleric. “When you side with God,” he intoned, “he will support you.”

At the same time, a bomb detonated just yards from the hospital, unleashing scenes of chaos. Fighters shot randomly — and ineffectually — into clear skies, sirens howled and two ambulances speeding from the hospital crashed into each other. Doctors and staff evacuated the hospital, leaving behind the body of a civilian who they said was shot in the head by snipers loyal to Colonel Qaddafi’s forces firing from the beach.

“We only die once,” Hweidi Trabulsi shouted, trying to rally his fellow fighters, dressed in a mishmash of berets, camouflage and track suits. But his pleas fell on deaf ears, as rebels scrambled to fall back to a makeshift checkpoint at the edge of town.

Scores of trucks fled down the coastal road, barreling past the largely deserted refinery and fighters praying on pieces of cardboard that read, “Fresh vegetables.” Shell casings fell off a pickup bed, as the vehicle lurched ahead. Passing it was a truck with a gun mounted in back, vainly camouflaged with a few branches of a eucalyptus tree.

“Everyone is targeted,” said Salem Langhi, an orthopedic surgeon helping with the evacuation. “We have no idea what they’re bombing. Chaotic? Yes, this is chaos.”

In Benghazi, Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, the deputy leader of the Libyan National Council, a kind of government in waiting, said reports of Ras Lanuf’s fall were not accurate. An opposition spokesman, Essam Gheriani, said even if the reports were true, “It’s not a permanent setback.” He contended that the attack on the city was joined by Libyan Navy ships and commercial vessels carrying artillery. The reality of Ras Lanuf’s fate was more ambiguous. Even though rebels pulled back from the city, it did not appear that government forces had actually entered.

As each day passes, anger among the rebels grows at what they have described as inaction on the part of the international community and in particular, the United States.

“Obama and Qaddafi are the same!” one fighter, Mohamed Mgaref, shouted at a medical clinic about an hour from the front, as ambulances ferried some of the four dead and dozens wounded in the fighting. More scenes of chaos unfolded there. “Clear the way!” volunteers shouted as ambulances swerved into the clinic’s driveway. At each rumor of an airstrike, people fled for cover. “Spread out,” one man shouted at them.

In a rare piece of encouraging news for the opposition, France on Thursday became the first country to recognize the opposition leadership and said it would soon exchange ambassadors with the movement in Benghazi. The move put France ahead of the United States and other European powers seeking ways to support the opposition.

France’s stance was viewed as a savvy gesture to show commitment to the uprisings and wave of protests in the Middle East and North Africa after President Nicolas Sarkozy admitted Paris was slow to recognize the strength of the movements in Egypt and Tunisia. It might also position France favorably in future oil deals if the opposition movement somehow manages to expel Colonel Qaddafi and take control of the country.

Libyan officials denounced the move as “illegal and illegitimate.”

“All the options will be considered in our response,” Khalid Kaim, the deputy foreign minister, said in a news conference in Tripoli after the decision was announced, including Libya’s withdrawing recognition for France.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said that at least seven journalists in Libya were unaccounted for. The most recent to vanish was Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, a correspondent for The Guardian newspaper, whose disappearance was reported Thursday.

Mr. Abdul-Ahad was last known to be on the outskirts of Zawiyah, near Tripoli, scene of some of the heaviest fighting between rebels and Colonel Qaddafi’s forces.

Reporting was contributed by Kareem Fahim from Benghazi, David D. Kirkpatrick from Tripoli, Alan Cowell from Paris and Steven Lee Myers from Washington.

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