Libyan Rebels Battle for Cities as Allies Risk Stalemate

Libyan Rebels Near Brega
A Libyan rebel looks through binoculars toward an area of street battles with forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi near Brega on Sunday. Photographer: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

Libyan rebels faced setbacks including the deaths of at least 13 fighters when their convoy was mistakenly hit by an allied airstrike meant to thwart forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi.

NATO said it was “looking into” the reports of the strike near Brega yesterday while the leaders of the rebellion, who are based in the eastern city of Benghazi, said their own fighters were at fault.

“Unfortunately, the rebels were not organized, and there were some individuals from Qaddafi’s troops among them,” said Abdel Fatah Younis, head of the rebellion’s military efforts and former Libyan interior minister, according to Al Jazeera. “One of them opened fire at one of the coalition’s jets and escaped. The coalition thought that was from an enemy.”

Rebel forces have struggled for more than a month to take and hold strategic cities in central Libya including Brega, Ajdabiya and the oil port of Ras Lanuf. The U.S., U.K. and other allies stepped up diplomacy as well as air sorties last week in an attempt to avoid a stalemate that might draw NATO members further into the six-week-old conflict.

The Libyan government is open to talks to find an end to the conflict, Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi, a former prime minister, told Britain’s Channel 4 News yesterday. British officials also reportedly met with Mohammed Ismail, a senior aide to one of Qaddafi’s sons, the New York Times reported.

Proposed Resolution

Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam is proposing a resolution that would entail his father relinquishing power to his son, the New York Times reported today, citing an unidentified diplomat with close ties to the government. Neither Qaddafi nor the rebels appear ready to accept the proposal, the newspaper cited the diplomat as saying.

Following the rebel deaths, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said in an e-mail that it was taking “every care” to protect civilians. “Clearly, if someone fires at one of our aircraft, they have the right to defend themselves,” it said.

The strike has highlighted the issue of ground troops, who have been used by allied forces in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq to guide bombing from the air.

U.S. and U.K. officials have pledged they won’t send ground forces into Libya to help the rebels. A spokesman for French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that country has no plans for ground troops in Libya, as the March 17 UN resolution adopting the no-fly zone didn’t provide for them.

Ground Troops

U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said a report in the London-based Times newspaper that Britain was to send 600 marines to Libya wasn’t true. “They’re preparing for an exercise elsewhere,” he said on the British Broadcasting Corp.’s “Andrew Marr Show” today. “There is going to be no large scale ground force put in place by the U.K. in Libya.”

Hague’s comments came as a survey found that the military action is supported by 38 percent of Britons. Another 35 percent oppose it, according to an ICM poll for BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House.

The survey found that 65 percent of respondents said the U.K.’s involvement “will last for some time,” the BBC reported on its website today. The poll questioned 2,011 Britons online on March 30 and March 31.

Fighting continued today for control of Brega, where rebels occupied a university campus, while loyalist forces resumed their shelling of Misrata, the main rebel-held town in the west of Libya, Agence France-Presse reported.

Allied Sorties

NATO said it conducted 70 strike missions over Libya on April 2 and 184 sorties. Since the beginning of the operation, the alliance has flown a total of 547 sorties and 218 strike sorties, NATO said in an e-mailed update on its Libya mission.

Strike missions are intended to identify and engage targets, but do not necessarily deploy munitions each time, NATO said.

A total of 21 ships under NATO command are actively patrolling the central Mediterranean, the alliance said in the update. Four vessels were hailed yesterday to determine destination and cargo, and one boarding was required. A total of 34 vessels have been hailed since the beginning of arms embargo operations, NATO said.

The conflict in Libya is the bloodiest in a series of uprisings in the Middle East that have ousted longtime rulers in Egypt and Tunisia and inspired protests in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.

Crude oil fluctuated after climbing to a 30-month high in New York on April 1 as the fighting intensified in Libya. Crude for May delivery rose $1.22 cents to $107.94 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange on April 1, the highest settlement since September 2008.

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