Libya: Qaddafi surges east again as rebels appeal for aid

Moammar Qaddafi’s forces pushed the Libyan rebels back to the east March 30, re-taking towns they had ceded just days ago. Rebel forces have now been pushed east of Brega and are headed for Ajdabiyah. Even amid Qaddafi’s advance, his foreign minister Moussa Koussa defected to the UK. The first Allied air-strikes on Libya’s east in two days were carried out, to check the Qaddafi forces’ advance on Ajdabiyah. The Obama administration has sent teams of CIA operatives into Libya to establish ties with the rebels, the New York Times reported. Reuters, citing unnamed sources, said that Obama had signed a presidential “finding” authorizing covert aid to the rebels—which the administration would not confirm or deny. “No decision has been made about providing arms to the opposition or to any groups in Libya,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney. “We’re not ruling it out or ruling it in.”

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe also raised the possibility. “This is not allowed by either Resolution 1973 or Resolution 1970. For the time being, France is sticking to the strict application of these resolutions,” Juppe said. “Having said that, we are prepared to discuss this with our partners.” (NYT, NYT, March 31; AP, Reuters, Reuters, Reuters, PTI, Middle East Online, March 30)

Resolution 1970 imposes an arms embargo on all forces in Libya, but while Qaddafi’s forces are advancing in tanks, the rebels don’t even have enough Kalashnikovs to go around, with some young and poorly trained volunteers going into battle armed only with knives. NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen flatly stated: “We are not in Libya to arm people. We are in Libya to protect civilians against attacks.” However, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she believes that Resolution 1973 could permit arming the rebels. “Our interpretation [is that] there could be legitimate transfer of arms, if a country were to choose to do that.” (Sky News, March 31)

Juppe’s comments came as international powers met in London on March 29 to discuss the Libyan crisis. More than 40 countries and organizations, including the United Nations and NATO, agreed to create a “contact group” to map out a future for Libya and to meet again as soon as possible in Qatar. British Foreign Minister William Hague, who chaired the conference, said the delegates “agreed that Qaddafi and his regime have completely lost legitimacy.” (Middle East Online, March 30)

Several Arab states did not attend the London meeting—including Egypt, where pro-democracy protesters forced Hosni Mubarak from power last month; and Algeria, where President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been confronted with a wave of protests by pro-reform activists. Amr Mussa, the Arab League chief, was represented by an ambassador after declining to take up his invitation. Despite Mussa’s absence, Juppe said: “Qatar and the UAE [United Arab Emirates], who are engaged in the operation, are perfectly in agreement that military command should be entrusted with NATO.” (Middle East Online, March 30)

Tension is rising on the Italian island of Lampedusa as thousands arrive from Libya. On March 28, several local women chained themselves to the quay to stop any fresh landings, blaming migrants for recent crimes, including an assault and a theft. Lampedusa’s “reception center” for migrants is designed to hold 850 people; there are now some 6,000 migrants scattered across the island. (Middle East Online, March 30)

See our last posts on Libya and the regional revolutions.

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  1. so what’s with the airpower
    A curious and potentially tragic question: Why is NATO restraining the air power? Air power wins any war where armor and artillery are the advantage. Take away the armor and artillery and there is, at the least, a two state solution. The cynic in me says it’s because the munitions write up on the ordinance is too high and we’re already paying our arms industry a spectacular sum of money daily in our other engagements. The conspiracist thinks this may be a total failure of political nerve on Obama’s part, for all the rhetoric his main interest is reelection, and brinksmanship by the French thinking Obama can’t lose this one so eventually the US will bail the rebels out.

    1. NATO restraining air power?
      Where are you getting this angle? The residents of Tripoli might have reason to disagree. From The Guardian, March 31:

      Tripoli air strikes killed 40 civilians claims Vatican official
      Forty civilians have been killed during an air strike on Tripoli, the Vatican’s top official in the city has said .

      Quoting what he said were reliable reports from residents, Bishop Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli told the Guardian that 40 people living in the Tajoura district had been killed during a raid “two to three days ago” on a barracks. “There is a barracks there, but it is in the middle of the neighbourhood,” he said. “There could have been an arms depot there and if you hit that, you can harm civilians.”

      Martinelli said he had not seen the site of the bombing, but had been told by a person he trusted. “They said Libyan families had spoken of dead and wounded family members,” he said. “There have been many raids here and they are continuing, aimed at all the barracks in the city. “Can you imagine the damage around these sites?”

      Martinelli said he had also heard reports of a house collapsing in Buslim, again near a barracks.

      “There were certainly people inside, although I do not know how many,” he said.

      1. Gaddafi still has artillery
        At least according to some PBS rebels in retreat footage last night. If Gaddafi has any artillery or armor in the field NATO is restraining their air power. From BBC today:

        Further west, pro-Gaddafi forces continued to pound the besieged city of Misrata with artillery and tank fire.

        Elsewhere the article says a stalemate is being reached so perhaps the western military theory is just enough to prevent Gaddafi winning and not a smart bomb more.

        1. NATO tactical restraint?
          Could be that NATO is holding back on a full-scale assault until arrangements can be made for a compliant post-Qaddafi regime—as a hedge against “chaos” (read: anything other than a compliant post-Qaddafi regime). But events could force the West’s hand once Qaddafi’s forces arrive back at Benghazi…