Libyan forces attack last rebel-held western city

By Ryan Lucas

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 18 2011 6:40 a.m. MDT

Libyan men, who live and work in Tunisia and refused to give their names, are served with champagne to celebrate the United Nations resolution, at a restaurant in Tunis, Tunisia, late Thursday, March 17, 2011. The U.N. Security Council voted Thursday to impose a no-fly zone over Libya and authorize 'all necessary measures' to protect civilians from attacks by Moammar Gadhafi's forces, hours after the Libyan leader vowed to crush the rebellion with a final assault on the opposition capital of Benghazi.

Lefteris Pitarakis, Associated Press

BENGHAZI, Libya — In a show of defiance, Moammar Gadhafi's forces bombarded the last rebel-held western city for a second day Friday as the international community raced to stop him after the U.N. authorized "all necessary measures" to protect the Libyan people, including airstrikes.

The attack on Misrata, Libya's third-largest city, comes as the rebels were on the defensive in their eastern stronghold after Gadhafi vowed to launch a final assault and crush the nearly 5-week-old rebellion against him.

The opposition expressed hope the U.N. resolution, which was passed late Thursday after weeks of deliberation, would help turn the tide in their favor after days of fierce fighting.

The U.N. Security Council resolution sets the stage for airstrikes, a no-fly zone and other military measures short of a ground invasion.

"We think Gadhafi's forces will not advance against us. Our morale is very high now. I think we have the upper hand," Col. Salah Osman, a former army officer who defected to the rebel side, said. He was speaking at a checkpoint near the eastern town of Sultan.

Britain announced that it would send fighter jets and France was making plans to deploy planes, but as of Friday morning the U.S. had yet to announce what its role would be. NATO also was holding an emergency meeting.

The U.S. has positioned a host of forces and ships in the region, including submarines and destroyers and amphibious assault and landing ships with some 400 Marines aboard. It also could provide a range of surveillance assets.

Military experts cautioned that the consequences of such action are unpredictable. The former head of the British army, Richard Dannatt, said it was crucial to proceed cautiously "so we don't get into the kind of situation that we got into in Iraq by not having a Plan B for the morning after."

But the Western powers faced pressure to act urgently after weeks spent deliberation over what to do about Gadhafi as his regime gained momentum.

Gadhafi pledged to respond harshly to U.N.-sponsored attacks in an interview with Portuguese television broadcast just before the U.N. vote. "If the world is crazy," he said, "we will be crazy, too."

The Libyan government closed its airspace to all traffic Friday, according to Europe's air traffic control agency, Eurocontrol.

Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim offered to negotiate a cease-fire with the rebels. He welcomed the Security Council's concern for the people of Libya but called on the world not to allow them to receive weapons. "If any countries do that, they will be inviting Libyans to kill each other," he said.

Government tanks rolled into Misrata, 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, shelling houses, hospitals and a mosque for several hours Friday before pulling back to the city's outskirts, witnesses said. At least six people were killed, raising the total death toll in two days of fighting to nine, a local doctor said.

Misrata is the last rebel holdout in the western half of the country after Gadhafi recaptured a string of other cities that had fallen to the opposition early in the uprising that began Feb. 15. Its fall would leave the country largely divided, with the rebels bottled up in the east near the border with Egypt.

The city has been under a punishing blockade that has prevented aid ships from delivering medicine and other supplies, the doctor said.

"They haven't stopped shelling us for a week — we sleep to shelling, and wake up to shelling. They are targeting houses and hospitals," he said, adding the hospital had been overwhelmed.

"We have had to perform surgeries in the hallways using the light from our cell phones to see what we're doing. We are also using some clinics around the town, some only have 60 beds, which isn't enough," he said.

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