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Libya rebels capture Khadafy hometown, ex-official says

NATO agrees to take command of coalition strikes

By Kareem Fahim and David D. Kirkpatrick
New York Times / March 28, 2011

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AJDABIYA, Libya — Rebels captured Surt, the hometown of Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy, the country’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammed Abdel Rahman Shalgham, told Al Jazeera.

Shalgam, who defected to join the opposition, was speaking from New York, Bloomberg News reported today. He said he got the information from the rebel leaders.

The capture of Khadafy’s hometown came after rebels backed by allied warplanes recaptured two strategic oil towns as they erased recent losses.

The rebel gains set the stage for the battle for Surt, considered a potentially decisive objective in the war for Libya.

The gains underscore the essential role that Western airstrikes — now focused mainly on Khadafy ground troops since the elimination of his air defenses — have played in turning around the rebels’ fortunes.

Libyan state television reported that Surt had been bombed in air raids late last night. Heavy bombardment of Tripoli also began after nightfall.

At a meeting yesterday in Brussels, NATO agreed to take over the entire military mission in Libya, including the airstrikes targeting the Libyan military. The decision effectively relieved the United States of leading the fight and ended a week of squabbling among the allies over the issue.

The agreement by NATO, which works by unanimity, was announced by the alliance secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

The airstrikes, which began a week ago, have quickly reversed the military balance along the eastern coast. The rebel advance yesterday moved the eastern front farther west than it had been at the peak of rebel gains several weeks ago.

Rebel fighters pushed past the oil towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf yesterday, meeting little resistance as they recaptured two important refineries. By the evening, they had pushed the front line west of Bin Jawad, according to fighters returning from the front.

Emboldened by the retaking of the strategic crossroads city of Ajdabiya a day earlier, the rebels have moved rapidly, taking advantage of what the Khadafy government has called a “tactical pullback.’’

There were clashes with government forces overnight near the town of Uqaylah, on the main coastal road to Ras Lanuf, but nothing after that.

“There wasn’t resistance,’’ said Faraj Sheydani, 42, a rebel fighter interviewed on his return from the front. “There was no one in front of us. There’s no fighting.’’

In western Libya, however, the rebel-held city of Misurata was still under siege by loyalist forces and by yesterday evening rebels were again reporting street fighting in the center of the city and shelling from Khadafy tanks around the outside.

The rebels said earlier in the day that allied airstrikes had kept up through the night, destroying a major ammunition depot that exploded in a blaze of light.

It was still burning 13 hours after the initial blast, said Muhammad, a rebel spokesman there whose full name was withheld for his family’s safety.

Speaking over a satellite hookup powered by a hospital generator, he contradicted statements from the Khadafy government that they had restored electricity and water to the city.

He said that rebels had used a local generator to restore electricity to about half the city. But he said that water remained cut off and residents were using a small supply from a desalination facility there. The reports were impossible to confirm because the Khadafy government has prevented journalists from reaching the city.

In Tripoli yesterday, refined gasoline was in increasingly short supply. Lines of cars at gas stations stretched for several blocks, and some said they had turned out before dawn for a chance to fill up.

There were also lines for bread at bakeries, mainly because the migrant workers Libyans rely on to bake and do other menial jobs have fled the country.

In interviews, many people in Tripoli, both those supporting Khadafy and those opposing him, said they were closely watching the battle for Surt.

NATO had agreed to take on the no-fly zone late last week, since military planning had already been done. But the alliance needed the weekend to prepare a formal military document for the member states to approve, which they did yesterday. In the meantime, the United States has been coordinating the bombing campaign.

The alliance was divided over the issue, because France, which has been leading the coalition, did not want to cede control to NATO, which it argued is US-dominated and therefore an uncomfortable brand for another war in an Arab country.

But other countries like Italy and Norway said that their participation depended on NATO running the war under the political control of its governments. Turkey also insisted on NATO control.

Tomorrow, in London, coalition foreign ministers will meet with representatives of the Arab League, the African Union, the European Union, and the United Nations to discuss the nonmilitary aspects of the campaign — sanctions, pressure on Khadafy, humanitarian needs, and possible “end game’’ strategies.

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