Libyan Rebels Forced Into Retreat Near Sirte as Obama Considers Direct Aid

Libyan rebels retreated under fire from Muammar Qaddafi’s troops as U.S. President Barack Obama and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said they may consider sending arms to the opposition forces.

“We will be providing them direct assistance,” Obama said in an NBC “Nightly News” interview yesterday. Asked if this meant sending weapons to the rebels, Obama said: “I’m not ruling it out. But I’m also not ruling it in.”

Cameron echoed Obama when answering questions in Parliament in London today. “We do not rule it out, but we haven’t taken the decision to do so,” he said.

Rebels, after advancing toward Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, withdrew in the face of artillery and rocket attacks as pro-Qaddafi forces retook control of the oil port of Ras Lanuf. The BBC and New York Times, citing reporters near the Libyan frontline, said rebels are streaming away from Brega and heading northeast, back toward Ajdabiya.

Allied forces carried out an air strike against troops loyal to Qaddafi several kilometers west of Ajdabiya today, Agence France-Presse reported.

“There’s little indication that Qaddafi’s forces were driven back by the rebels,” Nate Hughes, director of military analysis at the Austin, Texas-based geopolitical advisory firm Stratfor, said in a telephone interview. “The rebels are no match for Qaddafi’s forces.”

Libyan Advance

Qaddafi’s advance shows he retains military capacity after almost two weeks of U.S.-led bombing that has targeted his air defenses, armor and army installations. In London, leaders of the anti-Qaddafi coalition pledged yesterday to continue military action against Libya until he complies with United Nations resolutions demanding an end to attacks on civilians.

Six F-16 fighter jets from the Netherlands are deploying over Libya with NATO forces, the Dutch Defense Ministry said today in a statement. The Netherlands has also sent a KDC-10 in-flight refueling tanker and the mine-hunting ship HNLMS Haarlem, the ministry said.

“In two weeks from now, if the rebels haven’t taken Tripoli and Qaddafi is still in charge, I see a second UN mandate for ground troops,” Florence Gaub, a North Africa expert at the NATO Defense College in Rome, said in a telephone interview. “It’s not a question of if Qaddafi is going to go, but when. It will definitely happen in April.”

New Ambassador

Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, a former foreign minister of Nicaragua’s socialist Sandinista government and one-time president of the United Nations General Assembly, has been named by Qaddafi’s regime as Libya’s ambassador to the UN.

Venezuela President Hugo Chavez said today Qaddafi told him he isn’t leaving Libya and that his exile is “not foreseen,” after he was asked by a journalist if he would give the North African leader asylum. Chavez was speaking on state television during a visit to Uruguay.

There are signs that some of Qaddafi’s associates are abandoning him, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.

“On the political front, one can see the first defections around Qaddafi in Tripoli,” Juppe said during question time in parliament in Paris today, without providing further details.

The six-week conflict in Libya, that began as a popular anti-regime protest movement of the kind that unseated leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, has divided the international community, with Russia and China refusing to support the UN-backed intervention. As many as 12,000 people may have died in the fighting, according to rebel estimates.

Rebels Sell Oil

Crude oil futures extended declines after a U.S. government report showed a larger-than-forecast increase in inventories. Crude oil for May delivery declined 22 cents to $104.57 a barrel at 1:06 p.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

At the London conference, Qatar, which was the first Arab nation to send jets to join the coalition enforcing the Libyan no-fly zone, offered to facilitate oil sales from rebel-held parts of the country and use the proceeds for humanitarian aid.

Before being forced back yesterday, the rebels had advanced along the coast and recaptured Ras Lanuf and the neighboring oil port of Brega, helped by U.S.-led air strikes on government positions.

In western Libya, forces loyal to Qaddafi used tanks and armored vehicles to storm the city of Misrata from several locations, Sadoon al-Misrati, a member of the opposition forces, told Al Arabiya television. He said the allies hadn’t adopted military tactics to “neutralize this direct threat” to Libya’s third-biggest city.

Ugandan Exile

Obama, in an interview with the CBS Evening News, said the “noose has tightened” around Qaddafi and that “it may at some point shift to him figuring out how to negotiate an exit.” Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Hamad Bin Jabr Al Thani, said the Libyan leader should quit now before an offer to let him go into exile -- which he didn’t detail -- is taken away.

Uganda would consider a request by Qaddafi for political asylum in the East African nation, though he hasn’t submitted an application, said Henry Okello Oryem, minister of state for foreign affairs.

“Qaddafi’s plan B would be to flee to an African country,” said the NATO Defense College’s Gaub. “But the problem is that the regime isn’t just him. His sons are even more determined to cling to power.”

Diplomats Expelled

Britain has expelled five Libyan diplomats, including the military attache, from London, Foreign Secretary William Hague said. “Were these individuals to remain in Britain, they could pose a threat to our national security,” he told lawmakers in the House of Commons today.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Syrian President Bashar al- Assad said he won’t be rushed into making political changes aimed at quelling the worst unrest since he inherited power from his father in 2000.

Assad said his Baath Party has prepared a draft for amending the country’s emergency and political party laws. He declined to say when those changes may be implemented.

To contact the reporters on this story: Thomas Penny in London at tpenny@bloomberg.net; Ola Galal in Cairo at ogalal@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

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