Libyan rebels close on key Gadhafi stronghold

By Ryan Lucas

Associated Press

Published: Monday, March 28 2011 9:30 a.m. MDT

A Libyan rebel greets a man on a checkpoint leading into Ras Lanouf, eastern Libya, Sunday, March 27, 2011. Libyan rebels took back a key oil town and pushed westward Sunday toward the capital, seizing momentum from the international airstrikes that tipped the balance away from Moammar Gadhafi's military. Brega, a main oil export terminal in eastern Libya, fell after a skirmish late Saturday and rebel forces moved swiftly west, seizing the tiny desert town of Al-Egila a collection of houses and a gas station on their way to the massive oil refining complex of Ras Lanouf.

Anja Niedringhaus, Associated Press

BIN JAWWAD, Libya — Rebel forces on Monday fought their way to the doorstep of Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, a key government stronghold guarding the road to the capital Tripoli, their rapid advance built on powerful international airstrikes that have battered Gadhafi's air force, armor and troops.

The rebels' offensive has restored to the opposition all the territory they lost over the past week and brought them closer than ever to Sirte, with their fighters advancing to within 60 miles (100 kilometers) of the bastion of Gadhafi's power in the center of the country.

But the advance on Sirte and the flip-flop in the conflict's momentum brought into sharper relief the central ambiguity of the international mission in Libya. When Gadhafi's forces were besieging rebel-held cities in the east last week, allied airstrikes on his troops more directly fit into the U.N. mandate of protecting civilians. But those same strikes have now allowed rebels to go on the assault.

Russia on Monday criticized the international campaign, saying it had overstepped its U.N. mandate to protect civilians and had taken sides in a civil war.

NATO's commander for the operation, Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard of Canada, said his mission was clear, saying every decision was designed to prevent attacks on civilians. "Our goal is to protect and help the civilians and population centers under the threat of attack," he said.

But in Brussels, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu noted that the allied operation was launched in response to "the systematic attacks by Col. Gadhafi against his own people."

"That is how this all started, we have to remember that," she said.

Some residents were fleeing Sirte, as soldiers from a brigade commanded by Gadhafi's son al-Saadi and allied militiamen streamed to positions on the city's outskirts to defend it, witnesses said. Sirte — where a significant air and military base is located — was hit by airstrikes Sunday night and Monday morning, witnesses said, but they did not know what was targeted.

The city of 100,000 is crucial both for its strategic position and its symbolic value. Over the years, Gadhafi has made it effectively Libya's second capital, building up what had been a quiet agricultural community with lavish conference halls where Arab and African summits were held. The city is dominated by members of the Libyan leader's Gadhadhfa tribe, but many in another large Sirte tribe — the Firjan — are believed to resent his rule, and rebels are hoping to encourage them and other tribes there to rise up to help in their capture of the city.

Its fall to the rebels would largely open their way to move on the capital, Tripoli, 250 miles (400 kilometers) to the northwest along the Mediterranean coast.

About halfway between the two lies Libya's third largest city, Misrata, which has been in rebel hands since early on in the nearly month-and-a-half-old uprising but has been under heavy siege by Gadhafi forces for weeks. Misrata came under renewed heavy shelling on Monday, witnesses said. There is little but empty desert highway and a few small hamlets between Sirte and Misrata.

Gamal Mughrabi, a 46-year-old rebel fighter, said there are both anti- and pro-Gadhafi forces inside Sirte and predicted a tough fight. "Gadhafi is not going to give up Sirte easily because straightaway after Sirte is Misrata, and after that it's straight to Gadhafi's house," he said. "So Sirte is the last line of defense."

In a symbolic diplomatic victory for the opposition, the tiny state of Qatar recognized Libya's rebels as the legitimate representatives of the country — the first Arab state to do so.

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