Khadafy’s units hit opposition hard
No-fly zone effort sputters, fueling cry against West
TOBRUK, Libya — Moammar Khadafy’s forces overwhelmed rebels in the strategic eastern city of Ajdabiya, hammering them with airstrikes, missiles, tanks, and artillery yesterday in an assault that appeared to open the way for an all-out government offensive on the opposition’s main stronghold in the east, Benghazi.
In desperation, rebels sent up two antiquated warplanes that struck a government ship bombarding Ajdabiya from the Mediterranean. But as tanks rolled into the city from two directions and rockets relentlessly pounded houses and shops, the ragtag opposition fighters’ defenses appeared to break down.
Only 10 days ago, the rebellion was poised to march on Tripoli, the capital, and had appeared capable of sweeping Khadafy out after 41 years in power, but the regime’s better-armed and organized military has reversed the tide. Efforts led by France and Britain to create a no-fly zone to protect the rebels have gone nowhere, and some rebels lashed out at the West for failing to come to their aid.
“This is a madman, a butcher,’’ one rebel fighter said of Khadafy, speaking by telephone from Ajdabiya as explosions were heard in the background. “It’s indiscriminate fire.’’
“The world is sleeping,’’ he said. “They [the West] drunk of Khadafy’s oil and now they won’t stand against him. They didn’t give us a no-fly zone.’’
Residents of the city of 140,000 streamed out, fleeing toward Benghazi, 140 miles northeast. But warplanes and artillery were striking roads in and out of Ajdabiya, several witnesses and fighters said. Some reported private cars had been hit, but the reports could not be independently confirmed. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from Khadafy’s regime.
Ajdabiya, 480 miles southeast of Tripoli, is the gateway to the long stretch of eastern Libya that has been in the control of the opposition since early on in the monthlong uprising. With its fall, regime forces would be able to bombard Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city and the de facto capital of the opposition, by air, sea, and land.
The opposition once had a seemingly unshakeable hold on the eastern half of the country and control of several cities in the west. Khadafy has reclaimed much of that territory, including all but one western city.
Khadafy warned rebels: “There are only two possibilities: Surrender or run away.’’
He said he was not like the Tunisian or Egyptian leaders who fell after antigovernment protests. “I’m very different from them,’’ he said in an interview with the Italian newspaper Il Giornale. “People are on my side and give me strength.’’
Late yesterday, addressing selected supporters in Tripoli, Khadafy called the rebels “rats’’ and blasted Western nations, which he said “want Libyan oil.’’
During his appearance, a crowd watching a TV projection on a wall in Benghazi shouted curses and threw shoes at the image, in video broadcast live by Al-Jazeera satellite TV.
As before, Khadafy played down the scope of the conflict in his country. “They said thousands have died, but only 150 have died,’’ he said.
Libyan state television aired calls for the opposition to stop fighting, apparently hoping to sway populations in the east away from support of the rebels. “Those who are asking you to put down your arms want peace for you, so please help them and stop shedding blood,’’ the broadcaster said. “Libya is for everyone and by everyone. So let God’s word be the highest and the word of evil be the lowest.’’
Europe and the United States, meanwhile, were tossing back and forth the question of whether to impose a no-fly zone that the opposition has pleaded for.
Top diplomats from some of the world’s biggest powers deferred to the UN Security Council to take action against Libya, as France and Britain failed to win support for a no-fly zone in the face of German opposition and US reluctance.
France said the Group of Eight agreed that a new UN resolution should be adopted by week’s end with measures to help Libyan rebels.
A UN resolution introduced yesterday includes no-fly provisions. It also calls for increased enforcement of an arms embargo and freezing more Libyan assets, according to UN diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because the text has not been released.