Libyan troops dig in to defend Khadafy’s hometown
BIN JAWAD, Libya — Rebel forces bore down yesterday on Moammar Khadafy’s hometown of Surt, a key government stronghold where a brigade headed by one of the Libyan leader’s sons was digging in to defend the city and setting the stage for a bloody and possibly decisive battle.
The opposition made new headway in its rapid advance westward through oil towns and along stretches of empty desert highway toward Surt and beyond to the big prize — the capital, Tripoli.
But the rebels remain woefully outgunned by Khadafy’s forces, who had swept the insurgents from their positions in eastern Libya before the international intervention forced government troops to withdraw.
Rebel leaders acknowledged that they could not have held their ground over the last week without international air and cruise missile strikes, and General Carter F. Ham, the ranking American in the coalition operation, warned that the rebel gains could be quickly reversed without continued air support.
Libya state television reported new NATO air strikes after nightfall in the cities of Garyan and Mizda about 40 miles and 90 miles respectively from Tripoli.
NATO insisted that it was seeking only to protect civilians and not to give air cover to an opposition march. But that line looked set to become even more blurred. The airstrikes now are clearly enabling rebels bent on overthrowing Khadafy to push toward the final line of defense on the road to the capital.
Vice Admiral William Gortney, staff director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States was hitting Libyan targets with Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft, designed to provide battlefield support to friendly ground forces.
Also joining the battle, he said, were Air Force AC-130 gunships, a low-flying aircraft armed with a 105mm howitzer and a 40mm cannon. Those two types of aircraft give the United States more ability to confront pro-Khadafy forces in urban areas with less risk of civilian casualties.
There was growing criticism from Russia and other countries that the international air campaign is overstepping the bounds of the UN resolution that authorized it. The complaints came at a critical transition in the campaign from a US to a NATO command. The change threatens to hamper the operation, as some of the 28 NATO member nations plan to limit their participation to air patrols, rather than attacks on ground targets.
Yesterday, rebel fighters moved about 70 miles west from the coastal oil terminal and town of Ras Lanuf to just beyond the small town of Bin Jawad, where their push was halted by government fire along the exposed desert highway and the heavily mined entrance to Surt.
The rebels are currently 60 miles from Surt, the bastion of Khadafy’s power in the center of the country.
Take control of that, and there’s only the largely rebel-held city of Misurata — and then empty desert — in the way of the capital. Surt could, therefore, see some of the fiercest fighting of the rebellion that began on Feb. 15.
“Khadafy is not going to give up Surt easily because straightaway after Surt is Misurata, and after that it’s straight to Khadafy’s house,’’ said Gamal Mughrabi, a 46-year-old rebel fighter. “So Surt is the last line of defense.’’ He said there are both anti- and pro-Khadafy forces inside Surt.
The official Tunisian news agency said late yesterday that Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa of Libya arrived in Tunis on what it called a private visit. Koussa crossed into the country through the Ras Jedir border crossing.
Some residents were fleeing Surt as soldiers from a brigade commanded by Khadafy’s son al-Saadi and his militiamen streamed to positions on the city’s outskirts, witnesses said. Surt was hit by airstrikes Sunday night and yesterday morning, witnesses said, but they did not know what was targeted.
Surt, which houses a significant air and military base, is crucial both for its strategic position and its symbolic value. Over the years, Khadafy has made it effectively Libya’s second capital, building up what had been a quiet agricultural community into a city of 150,000 with lavish conference halls where Arab and African summits were held.
Fighting in such a densely populated area is likely to complicate the rebels’ advance and add to the ambiguity of the NATO-led campaign, authorized by a Security Council resolution to take all necessary measures to protect civilians.
In Russia, which abstained from the UN vote, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said strikes on Khadafy’s forces would amount to taking sides in what he called Libya’s civil war, and thus breach the mandate that was initially envisaged as establishing a no-fly zone only to protect civilians.
But the inclusion of language allowing “all necessary means’’ opened the door to airstrikes and cruise missile attacks on Khadafy’s forces to stop attacks on cities and cut supply lines.