Attacks force Libyan rebels from stronghold
Khadafy troops press eastward relentlessly; Clinton to meet with opposition
AJDABIYA, Libya — Military forces loyal to Moammar Khadafy advanced yesterday on this anxious town, a strategic linchpin on the doorstep of the opposition capital Benghazi and within grasp of a highway crucial to recapturing the eastern border and encircling the rebellion with heavy armor and artillery.
After another day of headlong retreat, this time from the refinery and port at Brega, one town west of here, the rebels prepared for what some called a last stand at Ajdabiya, taking refuge in military barracks where they stacked ammunition boxes six deep, positioned a handful of tanks, and tried to bring order to a jumble of small artillery and antiaircraft guns. Bulldozers built berms 3 feet high near a pair of green metal arches that mark the town’s entrance.
The fate of Ajdabiya, an eastern town of 120,000 near the Mediterranean coast, may prove decisive in the most violent and chaotic of the uprisings that have upended the Arab world. Under a sky turned gray by a menacing sandstorm, the rebels vowed victory but acknowledged the deficit posed by their weapons and pleaded for a no-fly zone that seemed a metaphor for any kind of international help.
“Our retreat is a tactic,’’ said Said Zway, 29, a civil-engineer-turned-fighter, at Ajdabiya’s entrance. “We can wait until they impose a no-fly zone. If they don’t, what can we do, my friend? We fight and die. God is with us, God willing.’’
From its beginning, Libya’s uprising has taken a darker turn, as Khadafy’s forces have recaptured Zawiya, near Tripoli, and are besieging Misurata, a commercial capital and an oasis of rebel control in the west. Officials in Tripoli talk with bluster, and a more sullen mood has settled over Benghazi, where reports of lawlessness grow.
The UN Security Council this week may take up an Arab League call for a no-fly zone over Libya, a decision that Khadafy’s government yesterday deemed an “unexpected departure’’ from the league’s charter. The foreign ministers of major industrial nations are expected to consider the topic at a meeting in Paris today. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is to fly on to Egypt and Tunisia afterward and is expected to meet with Libyan opposition leaders.
But a front line that shifted eastward by the day and plunging morale here threatened to outpace a decision that still faces opposition from Russia and China and lacks the clear support of the United States and Europe.
The debate abroad overshadowed the stark reality on the ground — planes alone have not defeated the rebels, but rather a relentless onslaught — with tanks, artillery, helicopters, and ships at sea — that has sent rebels hurtling back the past several days from a series of oil towns along Libya’s virtually indefensible coastal plain.
Libya’s former interior minister, General Abdel Fattah Younes, appeared unexpectedly before reporters in Benghazi yesterday evening in his role as the new head of the rebel army and promised a vigorous defense of Ajdabiya, calling it a key city.
Once a close ally of Khadafy and head of the country’s special forces, Younes resigned his post in late February to join the rebels. He said that he had spent days at the front lines and acknowledged that opposition fighters had overextended: They advanced “too far, too fast and did not protect the areas they gained,’’ he said.
Striking an optimistic note, though, he cast the setbacks as a strategic decision.
“War is a matter of advance and tactical withdrawal,’’ he said. “What we are trying to do is lure him into an area where we can even the fight.’’
The strategy of an invigorated, though no less bizarre, Khadafy, absolute ruler here for nearly 42 years, has proved clear. With little regard for life, he has pummeled into submission rebel-held towns in his traditional stronghold of the west — Surt and Misurata among them — and deployed forces believed loyal to his sons to the east to recapture strategic oil towns between his birthplace, Surt, and Ajdabiya.
Ajdabiya is most strategic for its location, 100 miles from Benghazi and perched on a highway that bypasses eastern Libya’s coastal cities and cuts straight to the border with Egypt, which rebels have lightly defended. It was still unclear whether Khadafy would try to take the city in a bloody battle or bypass it en route to Benghazi and the highway.
Younes said he hoped Khadafy’s forces would overextend as they advanced, and many rebels speculated that his army was running short on fuel.
At the edge of Ajdabiya, rebels tried to bring military discipline to the throngs of fervent youths who have volunteered to fight. Gates were closed to two makeshift military bases, where hundreds of boxes of ammunition were stacked in a sprawling courtyard. Volunteers filled dozens of sandbags lined behind berms and not yet tied shut.
On loudspeakers, rebel leaders urged the curious to leave.
Rumors swirled — that rebel special forces had encircled government forces in Brega after nightfall, that 8,000 volunteers were coming under cover of night from Benghazi, and that Khadafy was deploying mercenaries from Egypt.