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Gadhafi vows to retake rebel east; UN eyes action

By Ryan Lucas

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 17 2011 1:35 p.m. MDT

A man tries to extinguish a burning aircraft after it crashed north of Benghazi, Libya, Thursday, March 17, 2011. Witnesses said the aircraft was piloted by anti-Gadhafi rebels and crashed for mechanical reasons. Libyan rebels used three of their own seized planes and some helicopters to attack government troops fighting to advance on the city of Benghazi, said Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman in the rebel base. Gadhafi's forces encircled a key eastern city and his warplanes went deeper into rebel-held territory to bombard Benghazi's airport Thursday, threatening an all-out offensive to bring down the rebellion.

Alaguri, Associated Press

TOBRUK, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi vowed to launch a final assault on the opposition's capital Benghazi and crush the rebellion as his forces advanced toward the city and warplanes bombed its airport Thursday. In the face of Gadhafi's increasingly powerful offensive, the United Nations was to vote on a mandate Washington seeks to strike his forces on land, sea and air.

After weeks of hesitancy over imposing a no-fly zone in Libya, the United States made a dramatic about-face, calling for even more expanded action, including strikes on Gadhafi's ground forces besieging rebel-held cities.

The U.N. Security Council scheduled a vote early Thursday evening on a resolution that would open the way for that, establishing a no-fly zone but also authorizing member states to take all necessary measures" to protect civilians from attacks by Gadhafi's forces.

The change reflected the past week's swift reversal of the realities on the ground, where once-confident rebels are now in danger of being crushed under an overpowering pro-Gadhafi force using rockets, artillery, tanks, warplanes. That force has advanced along the Mediterranean coast aiming to recapture the rebel-held eastern half of Libya.

Gadhafi troops encircled the city of Ajdabiya, the first in the path of their march, but also had some troops positioned beyond it toward Benghazi, Libya's second largest city and the headquarters of the opposition's leadership.

In an address Thursday evening, Gadhafi proclaimed that the "hour of decision has come" and that his regime would begin "tonight" to put an end to the rebellion.

"The matter has been decided ... we are coming," he said, calling in by telephone to state TV and addressing the people of Benghazi. He said there would be amnesty for those "who throw their weapons away," but for those who resist "there will be no mercy or compassion."

Gadhafi says his forces would "rescue" the people of Benghazi from "traitors" and warned them not to stand alongside the opposition.

"The people will see tomorrow if the city if one of traitors or heroes ... Don't betray me, my beloved Benghazi."

The closest known position of Gadhafi's ground forces from Benghazi was still about 80 miles (130 kilometers) to the south, making it unclear if they would move on the city Thursday night as Gadhafi boasted. But during the day, several regime warplanes boombed the city's Benina Airport.

Several witnesses said rebels in Benghazi succeeded in shooting down at least two of the attacking aircraft. Mohammed Abdel-Rahman, a 42-year-old merchant who lives nearby, said he saw one of the warplanes shot down after striking Benina — a civilian and military air facility about 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the center of the city. He said the strikes caused light damage.

Another witness, medical official Qassem al-Shibli, told The Associated Press that he saw three planes attack the airport and nearby rebel military camps before two were shot down. A third witness saw fire trucks fighting a blaze at the airport, and black smoke billowing from the area. Another witness reported that a rebel warplane crashed north of Benghazi, apparently after running out of fuel.

At the same time, the rebels were sending their own warplanes in an attempt to break the regime's assault on Ajdabiya, a city about 100 miles (150 kilometers) southwest of Benghazi that has been under a punishing siege by Gadhafi's forces the past two days. Three rebel warplanes and helicopters struck government troops massed at Ajdabiya's western gates, said Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman in Benghazi, and Abdel-Bari Zwei, an opposition activist in Ajdabiya.

But by Thursday afternoon, Gadhafi's army were holding the southern, eastern and western outskirts of Ajdabiya. Further outflanking the rebels, troops landing from sea swept into the nearby Mediterranean port town of Zwitina, 15 miles (25 kilometers) north, between Ajdabiya and Benghazi.

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