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Khadafy forces retake key city

West appears unsure how to respond

Forces loyal to Moammar Khadafy showed they had regained control of Zawiya, after a two-week battle with rebel fighters. Forces loyal to Moammar Khadafy showed they had regained control of Zawiya, after a two-week battle with rebel fighters. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images)
By Anthony Shadid and David D. Kirkpatrick
New York Times / March 12, 2011

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RAS LANUF, Libya — Forces loyal to Moammar Khadafy trumpeted their retaking of the rebellious city of Zawiya near the capital and pressed toward the country’s largest refinery here yesterday, as rebel lines began to crumble before an onslaught of airstrikes, tank and artillery fire, and relentless siege.

Plumes of smoke turned clear skies a somber gray after warplanes struck a fuel-storage tank at the refinery, and fighters set a dozen tires on fire in a futile attempt to provide cover.

Rumors tumbled through dwindling crowds of fighters that spies were among them, and volleys of antiaircraft fire seemed aimed more at lifting people’s flagging spirits than at bringing down the warplanes that sent rebels scurrying for cover behind sand dunes.

The setbacks were the clearest sign yet of the momentum Khadafy’s government has seized as it tries to crush the greatest challenge to his nearly 42 years of idiosyncratic rule. Through fear and intimidation, he has silenced protests in Tripoli, ravaged Zawiya — where the rebels had once delivered the revolt to his doorstep — and brought himself within striking distance of strategic oil towns in eastern Libya.

“We’re exposed here,’’ said Yusuf Ibrahim, a lieutenant colonel from Benghazi who deserted to the rebel ranks and has tried to coordinate defenses here. “There are no trenches. . . . This isn’t an army.’’

With Khadafy’s men also on the march against rebels in the east, Western nations appeared in disarray over how to respond.

President Obama said a no-fly zone over Libya to protect the civilian population from the Khadafy regime’s fighter jets remains a possibility as “we are slowly tightening the noose’’ around Khadafy, but he stopped short of moving toward military action.

But the European Union said yesterday that any such action would need diplomatic backing from international organizations like the Arab League, which was to discuss situation in Libya today in Cairo.

The EU held an emergency summit in Brussels on the war, which did not bring a no-fly zone closer to approval. But European leaders embraced a new Libyan opposition group as a viable partner after cutting all contact with Khadafy.

The EU said yesterday that the option of military action to protect Libyans from attacks by Khadafy’s forces remained, but only with sufficient diplomatic backing. However, the 27 EU leaders were unanimous in saying the fighting could not continue on Europe’s southern doorstep.

Repatriating thousands of stranded migrant workers who fled fighting in Libya is straining the resources of international aid agencies, officials said, calling for more help. More than 250,000 people, most of them foreign migrant workers, have fled Libya since the start of the uprising last month.

The advances of Khadafy’s forces raised questions of what strategy he might be pursuing in the aftermath of the three-week revolt.

Eastern Libya remains tentatively but almost uniformly in opposition hands, and tens of thousands turned out for Friday prayers, where a cleric urged patience with the revolt. But with the fall of Ras Lanuf and Zawiya, Khadafy is on the verge of retaking installations that refine nearly 90 percent of Libya’s oil production, pumped from the largest reserves in Africa.

In the afternoon, the government drove foreign journalists to a macabre spectacle in Zawiya, 30 miles from the capital. Less than two weeks ago, the city was firmly in rebel hands, and thousands of residents celebrated in the central square that was adorned with the opposition flag and defended by defected soldiers armed with antiaircraft guns.

Yesterday, after days of house-to-house searches and attacks with tanks and artillery, the government proved it had at last recaptured the square. Soldiers in mismatched uniforms blocked reporters from leaving the square, but the devastation told its own story.

The apartment buildings and businesses ringing the square were in ruins: broken windows, collapsed walls and balconies, and artillery holes everywhere. Mangled street lamps, flattened by tanks, lay across the sidewalk. The corner of the town mosque had been blown in and the top of its minaret knocked off. The speaker for the call to prayer was dangling by a wire.

Green and white streamers covered badly damaged buildings where Khadafy’s forces had hastily painted over murals of the rebels’ tricolor flag. Bulldozer tracks crossed patches of sandy dirt where rebels had buried some of their dead, and flag-waving supporters of the Libyan leader milled about.

In interviews, Khadafy’s supporters all offered the same testimony: The Libyan Army had liberated the town from foreign terrorists. Several insisted, despite the evidence, that there had been little or no violence.

Even as momentum shifted, it was still hard to envision Khadafy’s forces retaking Benghazi without a far more devastating battle than the one Zawiya witnessed. Even now, his forces seem stretched, and the advance has proceeded slowly. The city of 700,000 has been the headquarters of the opposition, which has sought to set up a state in waiting and already won recognition from France as Libya’s government.

“If you talk to people, they’re starting to accept any kind of intervention, even though it’s not good for the revolution to be tainted by that,’’ said Essam Gheriani, one of a group of spokesmen for the opposition leadership.

The plea was echoed at the front near Ras Lanuf, where fighters dwindled from more than 1,000 to a few hundred yesterday.

“We withdrew yesterday. Why?’’ asked Ahmed Tajjouri, a 25-year-old fighter. “Because we don’t have air defenses, defenses against the sea. What are we going to do if the warplanes come? Tanks are coming, too, and we don’t have those either.’’

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