Libyan Rebels Seek Cease-Fire as U.S. Vows to Withdraw Jets

Libyan rebels called for a cease- fire as forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi drove them back for a third day after sandstorms and clouds hindered NATO air strikes and the U.S. said it would withdraw all warplanes.

Qaddafi’s fighters must retreat from cities and nearby areas for any cease-fire deal, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the rebel Interim National Council, said in a news conference televised today from the insurgent stronghold of Benghazi. He said rebel demands for freedoms must also be met. There was no immediate response to the offer from Qaddafi officials.

A Libyan official said Qaddafi’s regime was trying to hold discussions with the U.S., France and Britain to find an end to the conflict, the Associated Press reported.

“We are trying to talk to the British, the French and the Americans to stop the killing of people. We are trying to find a mutual solution,” Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi, a former Libyan prime minister, told British television, AP said.

Mohammed Ismail, an aide to one of Qaddafi’s sons, has held talks with British authorities in London in recent days, the New York Times reported, citing an unidentified friend of the aide. Ismail planned to return to Tripoli after the talks.

U.S. Jets

The rebels’ call for a cease-fire comes one day after Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. jets won’t be flying with NATO forces over Libya after April 2. Mullen said planes would be made available only if requested by NATO. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told Congress the U.S. will “significantly ramp down our commitment” to Libya except for electronic warfare, aerial refueling and surveillance.

Rebels have retreated as Qaddafi’s troops regained the initiative after almost two weeks of allied air strikes against them. This week’s recapture of the oil port of Ras Lanuf by Qaddafi forces underscored the military weakness of his opponents. Intensive fighting continues around another oil port, Brega, Sky News television reported, adding that rebel and government lines are keeping out of range of each other’s weapons and are 10 to 20 kilometers (16 to 32 miles) apart.

Libyan rebels have appointed the nation’s former interior minister, Abdel Fattah Younis, as the head of the rebellion’s military efforts, Al Jazeera reported today, without saying how it obtained the information.

‘Can’t See the Targets’

Mullen said poor weather over the past three days in Libya meant pilots “can’t get on the targets; they can’t see the targets.” Sky News said its reporters in Libya hadn’t seen any alliance air strikes near the front lines for 3 1/2 days.

Al-Jazeera reported today that allied warplanes bombed targets in Brega.

An agreement for Qatar to market oil from territory held by Libyan rebels covers crude from the country’s southeast and excludes the areas of Brega and Ras Lanuf, Ali Tarhuni, member of the rebel council responsible for oil and economics, said today in a press conference in Benghazi.

Crude oil fluctuated after climbing to a 30-month high in New York. Futures rose above $107 a barrel for the first time since 2008. Crude oil for May delivery rose 92 cents to $107.64 a barrel at 1:14 p.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Oil is up 26 percent from a year ago.

Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Brussels and a former analyst at the NATO Defense College, said the rebel withdrawal means the allies must expand assistance to opposition groups.

‘Allied Ground Forces’

“I don’t know if this is a precursor for allied ground forces, but we are clearly going to see stepped-up aid,” Techau said in a telephone interview.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization said in a statement it has 205 alliance jets and 21 naval vessels involved in the Libya operation.

There was heavy fighting today in the western city of Misrata, residents said.

“A number of tank shells were fired at the port area of the city in the afternoon and the rebels inside responded to the attacks,” Reda Almountasser said in the telephone interview from the city, whose residents rose up against Qaddafi and have defied efforts by his forces to regain control.

Hospitals in Misrata are “reportedly overflowing with severely injured patients,” Doctors Without Borders said in an e-mailed statement.

Rebel leader Abdel Jalil said opposition forces would request arms deliveries if Qaddafi loyalists continue to attack.

“Our aim for a cease-fire is primarily to end Libyan bloodshed, but the Qaddafi regime will have to leave,” he said. “We’re confident of our forces and resolve to unseat Qaddafi’s regime.”

Arms for Rebels

U.S. political and military leaders said yesterday they’re unwilling to start providing arms and training for rebels fighting against Qaddafi. Mullen said there are “plenty of countries who have the ability, the arms, the skill set to be able to do this.” Gates said the U.S. doesn’t know enough about the insurgent groups beyond a “handful” of leaders.

The conflict in Libya, which began as a wave of anti- government protests similar to those in Egypt and Tunisia, escalated into armed conflict as the country’s army split and some soldiers joined the rebels.

U.K. and U.S. officials say the defection of Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa on March 30 is evidence Qaddafi’s regime is in disarray.

Libyan Defections

While dozens of Libyan diplomats have quit since the uprising against Qaddafi began, Koussa is one of the most senior officials to flee. Libya’s former deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Ibrahim Dabbashi, said more diplomats and senior-ranking Libyans are likely to defect from the Qaddafi regime “within days,” Sky News reported, adding that as many as 10 top Libyan officials may abandon the regime.

Gates said he envisions several end-game scenarios involving Qaddafi.

“One is that a member of his own family kills him, or one of his inner circle kills him, or the military fractures, or the opposition, with the degradation of Qaddafi’s military capabilities, rise up again,” Gates said.

Qaddafi said Western air strikes could lead to a war between Christians and Muslims that could spiral out of control, Sky News reported, citing a statement by the Libyan leader broadcast by state television.

To contact the reporters on this story: Zainab Fattah in Dubai at zfattah@bloomberg.net; Tamara Walid in Dubai at twalid@bloomberg.net.

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

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