Libyan Rebels Launch Offensive to Seize Tripoli

Libyan rebels said they’ve begun an offensive to free Tripoli from Muammar Qaddafi’s control five months after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization started airstrikes against the leader of the North African nation.

Rebels said they took control of Tajoura, an eastern suburb of Tripoli, Al Jazeera reported today. Fighting also occurred in the Souk Al-Jumma market area, it said. NATO aircraft raided Qaddafi’s Scud missile launchers and residents received text messages urging them to join the rebellion, the network reported.

“The decisive battle to liberate Tripoli started,” Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a rebel brigade commander, said in an interview with Al Jazeera. “I would like to tell our families inside the capital that we are coming and call upon Qaddafi’s troops to abandon their weapons tonight and to join us to get rid of Qaddafi and his regime.”

The rebel advance on Tripoli follows weeks of stalemate in the conflict. Qaddafi, who seized power in the oil-rich country in a 1969 coup, controls the capital and has told his followers to keep fighting the rebels and to resist the NATO airstrikes.

“The collaborators with the West are moving from one town to the next claiming control, but they are not in control, they are escaping like rats,” Qaddafi said in an audio address broadcast early today on Libyan television and carried by Al Jazeera.

“People are kissing my picture,” Qaddafi said. “I am their leader, I am their father.”

Libyan People

The rebels don’t represent the Libyan people, Qaddafi said, adding that the West is waging war to control Libya’s oil.

“The subject of surrendering or the white flag is out the question,” Saif Al-Islam Qaddafi, the leader’s son, said in a recorded speech on Libyan television aired by Al Arabiya today. “If you want peace we are ready and this is an initiative for inside and outside” the country.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Beth Gosselin said the U.S. has seen press reports that Qaddafi and two sons have fled the country “but we don’t have any confirmation.” The department stands by previous statements by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “that it’s time for Qaddafi to go,” she said.

Last week, rebels from the besieged city of Misrata captured the town of Zlitan, 150 kilometers (93 miles) southeast of Tripoli, overcoming forces led by Qaddafi’s son Khamis and linking up with other opposition fighters inside the town, their military council said in an Aug. 19 statement. The rebels also approached Wadi Kam, a valley 140 kilometers west of Tripoli, the statement said. Fighting left at least 31 rebels dead and 137 wounded, medical officials in Misrata said.

Rebel Control

“Rebels are now controlling Zlitan, and they are located near Wadi Kam,” said the council spokesman, Munir Mohammed. There was no independent confirmation of the reports of the rebel operations in the valley or in Zlitan.

Rebels also said they have taken Zawiya, west of the capital, and Ghariyan to the south.

Libyan Oil Minister Omran Abu Kraa headed to Tunisia rather than returning to his country after a trip to Italy, the state- run Tunisian news agency TAP said. Shokri Ghanem, Libya’s former top oil official, defected to join the rebels, according to a June 1 statement from the rebel Transitional National Council.

The rebels announced on Aug. 19 that they had control of the oil refinery at Zawiya and shut its supply to Tripoli while almost encircling the outskirts of the capital. Rebels took the main square in Zawiya, the Associated Press reported yesterday. Qaddafi’s forces remain in the eastern part of the city, the news service said.

Oil Production

Libya’s biggest refinery, at Ras Lanuf, which can produce 220,000 barrels a day, has stopped operating because of the fighting. Zawiya’s refinery, which supplies fuel to government forces, has a capacity of 120,000 barrels of oil a day, almost a third of Libya’s total.

U.K. warplanes hit the intelligence and police headquarters in central Tripoli on Aug. 19 as part of the NATO campaign, the Royal Air Force said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.

In a separate attack, British aircraft struck a compound in the Abu Salim district that is thought to house the main operations room of the Ministry of Interior’s security forces, according to the statement.

The International Organization of Migration is working to evacuate foreigners, many of them Egyptians, who want to leave Tripoli and appealed for funds to carry out the operation, according to a statement on Aug. 19 from the Geneva-based agency. The agency has been using ships to evacuate migrants, most of them North African, from Misrata, it said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Christopher Stephen in Misrata through the Dubai newsroom at barden@bloomberg.net.

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

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