Libyan rebel opposition asks for western air strikes against Muammar Qaddafi

Libyan rebel leadership requests UN airstrikes to dislodge Qaddafi. In a sign of mounting frustration among rebel leaders over Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s diminished but unyielding grip on power, rebel leaders have asked for Western airstrikes under the United Nations banner, according to people with knowledge of the deliberations.

Rebel leaders in eastern Libya have called for international military intervention to help topple Muammar Gaddafi, fearing people power alone may not be enough to dislodge their nation’s autocratic leader from his last remaining strongholds.

The rebels said they didn’t want ground forces, but they are coming round to the view that help in the form of a flight exclusion zone, as well as air strikes and supplies of weapons, will be necessary to ensure Colonel Gaddafi’s fall.

As the regime battled rebel forces, panic spread through the capital, Tripoli, yesterday after a fuel truck exploded. It was not immediately clear whether the explosion was an act of sabotage, although security forces said a road accident was to blame.

There were reports last night that a town in the rebel-held east of Libya has come under air attacks and forces loyal to Gaddafi have retaken a nearby oil facility. Witnesses saw two warplanes bomb the eastern part of the town of Ajdabiya. They also said that pro-Gaddafi forces were advancing on the town, some 750km east of the capital Tripoli.

US military officials said the rebels in the east had not yet asked for help, and on Tuesday played down the likelihood of the US setting up a no-fly zone.

But in the eastern city of Benghazi, the centre of the resistance, some members of the committee formed to run the city said they expected to issue a formal request to the international community today for military assistance.

A militia of jittery factory workers and shopkeepers used anti-aircraft guns to blaze at empty skies as they vowed to hold eastern Libya’s front line a day after it was bombed by Colonel Gaddafi’s air force.

”A no-fly zone would limit his … ability to move mercenaries from south to north and to recruit mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa,” said a member of Misurata’s media committee.

”Providing military equipment and arms to our free army in the east will help the free army march to Tripoli. And we want surgical military strikes to target his militia and make this end swiftly and … not to shed any more innocent Libyan blood.”

Regime opponents control the centre of Misurata, according to the spokesman. They also claim control over most of the military air base to the south.

Meanwhile, two US warships have entered the Suez Canal en route to Libya. ”The USS Kearsarge and the USS Ponce are making their way to the Mediterranean sea,” a canal authority official said.

In the west of Libya, tens of thousands of refugees could find themselves in a humanitarian disaster as they threaten to overwhelm neighbouring Tunisia’s meagre resources.

More than 75,000 refugees have crossed at the Ras Jedir border outpost so far. Fifteen thousand more were expected to arrive yesterday, with tens of thousands of others trapped on the Libyan side of the border.

Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, said the situation was reaching ”crisis point”.

After a UN meeting in Geneva, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said the debate over a flight exclusion zone was a sign the international community was taking human rights concerns seriously.

”If things go completely pear-shaped in Libya you can’t rule out the possibility [more military] assets would be used against opposition forces – and that means civilians,” he said.

By invoking the United Nations, a council of opposition leaders made up of lawyers, academics, judges and other prominent figures is seeking to draw a distinction between such airstrikes and foreign intervention, which the rebels said they emphatically opposed.  Qaddafi isn’t strong enough to recapture nearby cities, but the rebels aren’t strong enough to break his hold on the capital, which appears to have quieted down. If he keeps resupplying via air, at the very least he can hold on in his corner of the country for a good long while. At worst, he can build up to the point where he’s steamrolling people again.

Here is a video report

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