Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s jets dropped bombs around Benghazi, bringing the war to the opposition stronghold for the first time as the United Nations Security Council debates action to protect civilians.
Government planes today bombed Benina airport, six miles (10 kilometers) south of Benghazi, used by the rebels as an air base, following similar raids yesterday, Al Jazeera television reported. Fighting continued around Ajdabiya, about 100 miles south of Benghazi, where Qaddafi’s forces are still meeting resistance after saying they had seized the town. Reinforcements arrived for both government troops and rebels as they fought in darkness after electricity was cut off by the opposition, the Associated Press said.
Security Council discussions resumed today and may be followed by a vote on measures late in the day. The U.S. is supporting a draft resolution stating that any nation can take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians under threat of attack, explicitly including the rebel stronghold Benghazi, “while excluding an occupation force.” The UN measure also calls for an immediate cease-fire.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today in Tunisia that military options being considered include the use of drones and arming rebel forces to protect civilians and stop the advance of Qaddafi’s forces. Asked if the U.S. was considering sending ground forces to Libya, Clinton said “no.”
“Our goal in the Security Council today is to convince the Security Council to authorize further action, including a no-fly zone,” Clinton said at a town hall meeting with students and others in Tunis.
Libyan Deputy Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi said five Arab nations have agreed to contribute to the no-fly zone.
Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, scoffed yesterday at the Security Council debate on a no-fly zone. “It’s too late,” he said in an interview with EuroNews television, according to a transcript on its website. “In 48 hours, we will have finished our military operation. We are at the gates of Benghazi.”
Libya’s state-run television appealed to residents of Benghazi, a city of 1 million, to support government troops. The International Committee of the Red Cross yesterday pulled its staff from Benghazi and moved to Tobruk, near the Egyptian border, it said in a statement on its website.
The airstrikes around Benghazi haven’t targeted the city itself, and rebel fighters downed one of the planes carrying them out, said Essam Gheriani, a spokesman for the rebels, by phone today. Benghazi-based newspaper Breniq said a second plane was also shot down.
Libyan government forces continued to fight pockets of rebel resistance in Ajdabiya, where Al Arabiya television reported at least 30 dead bodies in the local hospital, and attacked the blockaded city of Misrata, the last rebel holdout in western Libya. Government tanks attacked two suburbs of the city last night, and at least 18 people have been killed, Reda Almountasser, a resident, said by phone.
Libya’s crude oil exports may be halted for “many months” because of damage to facilities and international sanctions, the International Energy Agency said March 15. Crude oil for April delivery rose $2.93, or 3 percent, to $100.91 a barrel at 12:19 p.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Futures are heading for the biggest gain since Feb. 23. The contract is up 22 percent from a year ago.
In Benghazi, Aisha Ftaytah, a spokeswoman for the Transitional National Council, said the rebels still control 40 percent of Libya, though Tobruk is the only major oil hub they hold. The rebels have some planes in Benghazi that are being targeted by government troops, she said, adding that people in the city are concerned that by the time there is international action against Qaddafi, “there will be nothing left.”
“The window of opportunity that we had for a no-fly zone has been closed,” said Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace bureau in Brussels and a former analyst at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Defense College in Rome and the German Defense Ministry.
“The West has a feeling of guilt, powerlessness and being morally torn,” Techau said by phone today. “Qaddafi’s rule is shattered and he’ll have to be even more despotic and vicious to stay in power.”
In his EuroNews interview, Qaddafi said rebels should flee to Egypt while they can. “We have no intention of killing them or taking revenge on these traitors who have betrayed our people,” he said. “We say to them that they can run into Egypt quite safely because Libya no longer belongs to them. A lot of them have already left for Egypt.”