Allied airstrikes boost confidence of Libyan rebels

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 21, 2011 

BENGHAZI, Libya — Two days after U.S. and coalition forces imposed a no-fly zone over Libya, rebels moved Monday to retake the city of Ajdabiya, a critical crossroads in their fight to regain the territory they lost week.

Forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi still held the bulk of Ajdabiya, about 50 miles south of Benghazi, but rebels said they'd entered the outskirts. They said after Ajdabiya, they'd move to the oil terminal towns of Brega and Ras Lanouf, and the village of Bin Jawad, which they'd lost last week to Gadhafi loyalists, and then would tackle Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte.

But that seemed like an ambitious goal on Monday, for the forces in Ajdabiya were poorly armed and scattered, some coming to battle only with knives.

The fall of Ajdabiya to Gadhafi's forces Saturday triggered a wholesale exodus of Gadhafi opponents from Benghazi, which had become the rebel capital in eastern Libya. But when French fighter jets bombed Gadhafi tanks here and the U.S. and Great Britain followed with Tomahawk cruise missiles and bomber attacks on Gadhafi's anti-aircraft defenses outside Tripoli, the rebels flooded back.

The boost to rebel morale from the allied bombing strikes could be seen everywhere here. Residents who didn't flee Saturday emerged from their homes for the first time in days.

How far the allied bombers will go in supporting the rebel advance was unclear, however, and it isn't certain that the disorganized and untrained rebel force would be able to retake the towns along Libya's coastal highway without allied attacks on Gadhafi's tanks and artillery.

The war could well be headed to a stalemate. On Monday, the western city of Misrata sustained more attacks from pro-Gadhafi forces, which apparently were undeterred by the allies' bombing campaign.

U.S. Army Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of the U.S. Africa Command, which is responsible for Libya, told reporters Monday that the allies wouldn't take sides in the conflict.

The United Nations Security Council, which approved the imposition of the no-fly zone last week, scheduled a closed-door session Monday to hear concerns from Russia, India and China over how the U.S., Britain and France had carried out the resolution.

Despite the allied attacks, Benghazi seemed far emptier Monday than a few days ago, suggesting that not everyone is convinced the fighting here is over. The few shops that were open before the attack are now closed. Residents who remained had set up checkpoints near burned-out Gadhafi tanks and trucks, which rebels had abandoned as they fled Saturday.

Residents took their children to the tanks and posed with them, sometimes planting a free Libya flag on the relics.

Many suggested renaming the city's main highway for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, conceding that pro-Gadhafi forces would have taken the city if France hadn't mounted its air assault here Saturday. The road is currently named for Gamel Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian leader who supported Gadhafi's revolt in 1969.

The scars from the fighting went beyond the bombed-out buildings, bullet holes and charred rebel trucks. Rebels had suddenly become distrustful of those around them after the discovery Saturday that many pro-Gadhafi forces came from Benghazi's own population.

Young men set up neighborhood watch groups to search for Gadhafi loyalists and fend off another surprise attack.

It remained unclear who was governing the liberated east. Many members of the National Libyan Council had fled to nearby eastern cities and even to neighboring Egypt. The council leader, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, was in nearby Baida, his hometown. The council's Benghazi headquarters was closed.

Council members said there was no communication with allied military officials about the no-fly zone, though rebels openly hoped that the coalition would strike Sirte next so that they could move forward.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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