Libyan rebels are advancing westwards after recapturing the strategic eastern town of Ajdabiya from government controls with the help of coalition airstrikes.
Reports on Saturday afternoon suggested rebels had already pressed onto the oil-port town of Brega, 80 kilometres to the west.
“We are in the centre of Brega,” rebel fighter Abdelsalam al-Maadani told the AFP news agency by telephone.
But there were reports too that pro-Gaddafi forces were attacking the opposition-held city of Misurata with heavy shelling, rebels told the Reuters news agency.
Earlier, rebels celebrated on the streets of Ajdabiya after driving pro-Gaddafi forces out of the town.
“There is no doubt about it, you can probably hear some of the celebrations behind me, Ajdabiya is in opposition hands,” Al Jazeera’s James Bays said from the city on Saturday as celebratory gunfire rang out.
“Gaddafi forces have been controlling the ring road that goes around Ajdabiya … that has been the situation for six days, but they have now been cleared from that position.”
“The opposition forces tell me there may be some pro-Gaddafi forces hiding, snipers possibly on buildings, they are telling us to take care,” he said, but he added that Ajdabiya was “firmly back under the control of opposition fighters”.
But Libyan government officials said that the army had withdrawn to save residents from more bloodshed.
Rebel forces had initially captured Ajdabiya during an advance along Libya’s east coast that was halted and reversed in a counter-offensive by government forces backed by superior air power earlier this month. But coalition airstrikes have tipped the balance back towards the rebels, Bays said.
“The road is open beyond Ajdabiya, and [the rebels] are heading, streaming along that road … they are on the road and they are moving forward,” Bays reported.
Many fighters belonging to forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi were also taken hostage by rebels. Among them, according to reports in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, is one of Gaddafi’s most senior soldiers, General Bilgasim Al-Ganga, said Al Jazeera’s Sue Turton.
“We’re hearing reports that the number three in Gaddafi’s army, Bilgasim Al-Ganga, has been captured overnight in fighting in Ajdabiya. He has a fierce reputation among the opposition who accuse him of committing many atrocities under the Gaddafi regime,” our correspondent said.
On Friday, western warplanes bombed Gaddafi’s tanks and artillery outside the town to break the battlefield stalemate and help rebels retake the town.
Plumes of smoke filled the sky as the pace of coalition air strikes escalated, forcing terrified residents to flee Ajdabiya, which is 160km south of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
In Benghazi, Turton said the rebels now believed they had government forces “on the back foot”.
“There is muted optimism. It really does feel the momentum of the Gaddafi forces has been stopped,” our correspondent said. “They are not outwardly celebrating but they are definitely optimistic.”
New coalition airstrikes were reported on Saturday near Misurata where forces loyal to Gaddafi shelled an area on the outskirts of the city on Friday, killing six people including three children, a rebel said.
The port city has experienced some of the heaviest fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Gaddafi since the uprising began on February 16.
Officials and rebels said aid organisations were able to deliver some supplies to Misurata.
“There is a fairly regular supply going into Misurata,” Simon Brooks, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross operations in eastern Libya, told Reuters.
“But we are deeply concerned about the reports we are receiving about fighting in the city.”
Casualties have overwhelmed the local medical clinic and prompted international concern about the safety of civilians.
Residents say electricity, water and regular land and cell phone service to Misurata are not functioning. Reports from the city cannot be verified independently because Libyan authorities have prevented journalists from going there.
Meanwhile, Barack Obama, the US president, said Saturday that the military mission in Libya was succeeding.
“Because we acted quickly, a humanitarian catastrophe has been avoided and the lives of countless civilians – innocent men, women and children – have been saved,” Obama said.
But Obama reiterated that the military mission was clear and focused and that the role of American forces had been limited.
“Our military has provided unique capabilities at the beginning, but this is now a broad, international effort… Key Arab partners like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have committed aircraft. And as agreed this week, responsibility for this operation is being transferred from the United States to our NATO allies and partners.
“This is how the international community should work – more nations, not just the United States, bearing the responsibility and cost of upholding peace and security.”
Meanwhile, the African Union, which has rejected foreign intervention in Libya’s affairs, said on Friday it plans to facilitate talks to help end the conflict.
“The AU action is … aiming at facilitating dialogue between the Libyan parties on reforms to be launched to
eliminate the root causes of the conflict,” the union’s commission chairman Jean Ping told a meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
He said that the process should end with democratic elections in Libya.
It was the first statement by the AU since the UN Security Council imposed a no-fly zone last week and a Western coalition began air strikes on Libyan military targets.
Libya’s delegation to the meeting, at which the rebels were not represented, called for an end to air strikes and said the government was committed to upholding a ceasefire it declared on Sunday.
The delegation said Tripoli is ready to implement an AU roadmap to resolve the Libyan crisis, while also demanding a halt to the Western-led coalition’s military intervention.
The AU roadmap calls for an immediate end to all hostilities, “cooperation on the part of the relevant Libyan authorities to facilitate humanitarian aid,” and “protection for all foreign nationals, including African migrant workers.”
‘Freelance foreign policy’
Anita McNaught, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, said it was not the first time that a Libyan delegation “conducted a little freelance foreign policy on the sideline” and that there was no way of telling if the offer was sincere.
“In much the same way, we had the foreign ministry go out on a limb a few days ago and say that they declared a ceasefire,” she said.
“That was in complete contradiction of the facts on the ground and also the rhetoric coming from Colonel Gaddafi himself who wasn’t saying anything to do with a ceasefire.
“He was saying: We’ll fight to the death; we’ll chase you into your homes. We’ll pursue this war to the end.”
A rebel spokesman in Benghazi said they weren’t consulted in this initiative. Some reports say they were not even invited to the meeting, while others say they were but refused to go. Some others are saying there are no opening for negotiations and that they simply want the bombing to stop and Gaddafi and his family to leave.
However, diplomatic efforts may be sidelined, if a Washington Post report with respect to US and NATO considering arming the Libyan opposition is confirmed.
The newspaper, citing unamed US and European officials, said that the Obama administration believes the UN resolution that authorised international intervention in Libya has the “flexibility” to allow such assistance.
According to it, Gene Cretz, the recently withdrawn US ambassador to Libya, said administration officials were having “the full gamut” of discussions on “potential assistance we might offer, both
on the non-lethal and the lethal side”.
Source: AlJazeera English
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