Thursday, March 03, 2011

Libya: Gaddafi refuses to step down, launches Eastern offensive

Image taken from Libyan state television broadcast shows Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi addressing supporters and foreign media in Tripoli, March 2, 2011

Republished permission of Voice of America

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is again defying demands to step down, proclaiming that he has the support of the people, as his forces stage a counter-offensive against rebels who took control of the country's east last month.

In a televised speech to supporters in Tripoli Wednesday, Gadhafi said he cannot resign because he holds no political office in a system that puts all power in the hands of the people. He also repeated accusations that the al-Qaida terrorist organization is behind the uprising against his 42-year rule.

Gadhafi's troops launched their first offensive against rebel-held towns in the east Wednesday, attacking the oil port of Brega and carrying out air strikes on the nearby town of Ajdabiya. Witnesses say pro-Gadhafi forces stormed into Brega before dawn, briefly seizing its oil installations and an airstrip. Rebel fighters say they later recaptured both sites.

Opposition fighters in Ajdabiya rushed to Brega to defend it. Both towns are on the western edge of the eastern region that has been largely under rebel-control since anti-government protesters and military defectors began an uprising last month to end Gadhafi's autocratic rule.

Libyan opposition leaders in the eastern stronghold of Benghazi say they are debating whether to request foreign air strikes against Gadhafi's military installations and other key facilities. Some officials on Benghazi's governing council said Tuesday that a rebel stalemate with pro-Gadhafi forces may never end without foreign air strikes.

The Libyan leader's son, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, warned Western governments against military action, saying that "if they attack, we are ready."

The Washington Post quoted three Benghazi council members as saying they will make a request for air strikes soon, reversing earlier pledges not to seek foreign military intervention. But, the opposition councilors said they do not want any foreign ground troops in Libya. The council is made up of lawyers, academics, judges and other prominent figures.

Libyan dissidents meeting with U.S. officials in Washington this week made similar calls for greater logistical support from American and NATO forces, including possible targeted military strikes against Gadhafi's air force, tanks and troops.

The State Department confirmed talks with a variety of Libyan opposition figures, but did not give details. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice has said it is "premature" to discuss military assistance to the Libyan opposition while its various factions try to become more organized.

Libyan anti-government activists continue to hold the key western town of Zawiya, near the Libyan capital, Tripoli, following a battle with government troops. But, residents said pro-government forces had moved their checkpoints closer to the town, increasing control over outlying areas.