Pressed by Khadafy forces, rebels claim advantage at night
Both sides face limits in supplies, number of troops
TOBRUK, Libya — Moammar Khadafy’s warplanes, artillery, and mortar shells can control huge swaths of territory by day, including oil ports, rebel supply routes, and even hostile towns. But rebels say antigovernment forces can still return in darkness to take advantage of Khadafy’s thin supply lines and overstretched ground troops.
The eastern port city of Brega has gone back and forth with the setting of the sun in recent days and is key to the battle for Libya’s oil centers — so key that both sides claimed control of it nearly simultaneously yesterday. The regime’s offensive appears to be hampered by a lack of manpower. They can drive out rebels with barrages, but not necessarily hold the territory.
Rebels, on the other hand, did not dare come out in the open yesterday in Brega, with a spokesman saying they were taking cover instead in the industrial oil area, where they believed Khadafy forces would not fire.
Brega and the city of Ajdabiya about 35 miles away again came under government bombardment yesterday, freshly exposing their importance as key crossroads for rebel supply lines, a main weakness in the Libyan region that contains most of its oil wealth.
To get ammunition, reinforcements, and arms to the front, rebels must drive along open desert highways, exposed to airstrikes. Khadafy warplanes struck at least three targets yesterday morning in Ajdabiya, missing a weapons storage site but hitting rebel fighters at a checkpoint in an attempt to stop supplies, rebels said.
Oil installations — and the ports that allow Libyan crude exports — are just as key as supply lines, and so the government and rebels both went out of their way late yesterday to claim victory in Brega.
Production has been cut drastically since fighting began, and new questions arose about whether the OPEC member was still exporting crude at all.
The rebels have pleaded for the West to impose a no-fly zone. France and Britain stepped up calls yesterday for other world powers to isolate Khadafy, but other countries, including the United States, have been cautious about backing the rebels.
Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said NATO was drawing up contingency plans for a no-fly zone. “Every day Khadafy is brutalizing his own people. Time is of the essence,’’ Cameron told the Parliament in London. “There should be no letup in the pressure we put on this regime.’’
Meanwhile, fighting raged in Brega, said Abdul-Bari Zwei, a rebel spokesman. He said the rebels controlled the neighborhoods, but Khadafy forces were pounding them with bombs from the air, land, and sea.
He said the rebels were hiding in parts of the industrial oil area, believing Khadafy forces would hold fire there.
Libya’s east is home to roughly 70 to 75 percent of the country’s reserves — the largest in Africa — and Khadafy has every reason to try to regain control of the region quickly.
Government troops have scored victories using overpowering bombardments with artillery, tanks, warplanes, and warships. Such an assault drove rebel fighters out of the oil port of Ras Lanouf several days ago.
After fleeing the bombardment Sunday, the rebels then pushed back into Brega in the evening and claimed to have captured dozens of fighters from Khadafy’s elite Khamis Brigade.
Yesterday, about 2,000 rebel fighters held Brega’s residential district, while pro-Khadafy troops controlled the industrial oil facilities some distance away. Rebel fighters were searching the residential area for any remaining Khadafy troops.
Libyan state TV showed images yesterday from Brega’s port, claiming that it was in government control.
Western Libya remains Khadafy’s stronghold, centered on Tripoli, where his militiamen have crushed any attempts at an uprising. But since early on in the revolt, which began Feb. 15, several cities in the west fell into rebel hands. Regime forces on Friday took back the most crucial of those cities, Zawiya, after a reportedly bloody and destructive week-long siege.
Yesterday, pro-Khadafy forces launched an attempt to take another nearby town, Zwara, 70 miles west of Tripoli. Government troops surrounded the town of 45,000 and bombarded it with tanks and artillery for hours starting in the morning, several residents said.
On Sunday, regime forces began shelling the most significant rebel-held city in the west: Misurata, Libya’s third-largest city, 125 miles southeast of Tripoli.
In Paris yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top diplomats from the Group of Eight prominent world economies discussed a response to the Libyan fighting as they met for a previously planned meeting of foreign ministers.
France, which has angered some allies by offering diplomatic recognition to Libya’s opposition, said it is important to act urgently against “barbarity’’ by Khadafy’s forces.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the world is “reaching a point of decision’’ on whether foreign forces will impose a no-fly zone.
The Arab League has backed a no-fly zone, and Hague said in cases of great humanitarian need, one could be enforced without a UN Security Council resolution.
Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, acknowledged that the Arab League supported a UN-approved no-fly zone, “but at the same time, it rejected any form of foreign, international intervention.’’
“These are questions that have to be discussed; these are not clear signals being sent, because a no-fly zone would be a military intervention,’’ he said.