Buoyed by strikes, Libya rebels try to advance

By Ryan Lucas

Associated Press

Published: Monday, March 21 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Libyan rebels observe the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, eastern Libya, Monday, March 21, 2011. The international military intervention in Libya is likely to last "a while," a top French official said Monday, echoing Moammar Gadhafi's warning of a long war ahead as rebels, energized by the strikes on their opponents, said they were fighting to reclaim a city under siege from the Libyan leader's forces.

Anja Niedringhaus, Associated Press

ZWITINA, Libya — Energized by international strikes on Moammar Gadhafi's forces, rebels advanced in an attempt to reclaim an eastern city under siege by the Libyan leader's troops on Monday as the U.S. commander of the allied campaign warned that a stalemate could emerge from the bombardment.

That could mean a longer conflict and an unclear end game as the U.S. and European countries try to calibrate how much their now three-day old air campaign — officially intended to protect civilians — should go toward actively helping the rebel cause. Henri Guaino, a top adviser to the French president, said the allied effort would last "a while yet."

Ali Zeidan, an envoy to Europe from the opposition-created governing council, told The Associated Press that rebels want to drive Gadhafi from power and see him tried — not have him killed. He said that while airstrikes have helped, the opposition needs more weapons to win the fight.

"We are able to deal with Gadhafi's forces by ourselves" as long as it's a fair fight, he said in Paris. "You see, Gadhafi himself, we are able to target him, and we would like to have him alive to face the international or the Libyan court for his crime .... We don't like to kill anybody ... even Gadhafi himself."

Gadhafi forces are currently besieging two rebel-held cities — Misrata in the west and Ajdabiya in the east. So far, the international airstrikes do not seem to have targeted those troops, which have repeatedly shelled both cities. So far, allied bombardment has concentrated on knocking out Libyan air defenses, but a significant test of international intentions will be whether eventually the strikes by ship-fired cruise missiles and warplanes will try to break those sieges by targeting those troops on the ground.

Doing so would appear to come under the U.N. mandate for the strikes, which allows countries to take "all necessary measures" to protect civilians in Libya.

But even if that happens, the fight is not over. Instead, Libya could end up divided between the rebel-held east and mainly regime-controlled west, with Gadhafi largely unable to move against opposition areas without his forces being devastated by allied strikes. If rebel fighters were to then try to attack regime-held cities and march on Tripoli to oust Gadhafi, it is unclear what the U.S. and European stance would be.

In Washington, the American general running the assault said there is no direct coordination between the allies and rebels and no attempt to provide air cover for their operations. Gen. Carter Ham said Gadhafi might cling to power once the bombardment finishes, setting up a stalemate with allied nations enforcing a no-fly zone.

In the immediate term, rebels sought to turn to the offensive, only days after they were in a frenzied retreat from advancing Gadhafi forces. The first round of allied airstrikes late Saturday and early Sunday smashed a pro-Gadhafi tank column that had been advancing on the rebels' capital, Benghazi, in the east of the country.

Now with Benghazi relieved, the opposition was moving west, trying to break the Gadhafi siege that has been pounding Ajdabiya since before the allied campaign began. Rebel fighters on Monday pushed without resistance down the highway between the two cities — littered with burned out tanks and armored personnel carriers hit in the airstrikes — until they reached the outskirts of Ajdabiya.

Along the way, they swept into the nearby oil port of Zwitina, just northeast of the city, which was also the scene of heavy fighting last week — though now had been abandoned by regime forces. There, a power station hit by shelling on Thursday was still burning, its blackened fuel tank crumpled, with flames and black smoke pouring out.

In a field of dunes several miles (kilometers) outside Ajdabiya, around 150 fighters massed. Some stood on the dunes with binoculars to survey the positions of pro-Gadhafi forces sealing off the entrances of the city. Ajdabiya itself was visible, black smoke rising, apparently from fires burning from fighting in recent days.

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