Thu March 17, 2011

As U.N. Mulls No-Fly Zone, Gadhafi Forces Advance

The Libyan government talked tough Thursday about any potential Western military intervention as it pressed its offensive against rebels trying to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi's 42-year dictatorship.

Libya's defense minister threatened that any Western airstrikes would endanger air and sea traffic in the Mediterranean now and in the future. The U.N. Security Council is set to vote Thursday on a resolution to authorize a no-fly zone and increased sanctions on the Gadhafi regime.

The vote comes as sporadic fighting continued and some Libyan civilians headed for the border.

We 'Wanted Freedom,' But We 'Got War'

Mubaker Abdul Hamid sits in his nearly empty cafe and restaurant in the dusty Libyan border town of Musaed, smoking, drinking tea and staring at Arabic TV reports of the day's fighting. He looks tense; a little nervous. Abdul Hamid says he worries incessantly about his family in Benghazi, and about the revolution Libyans in the east started and now say they can't finish without Western intervention.

"There will be more killings if they say 'no' to the no-fly zone," Hamid says. "And of course the rebels will lose."

Outside his café, there's a slow but steady stream of cars heading toward Egypt, stacked with luggage. Many people say they still support the revolution and the rebels and want a no-fly zone from the U.N. and U.S. But they're eager to get out of the country and to safety.

One man, who didn't want to give his name, hurried to get his family into the car and out of the country.

"The Libyan people only wanted freedom and all we got was war," he says as he rushes off.

Witnesses say Gadhafi's troops now control key positions all around the rebel-held city of Ajdabiya — the gateway to Benghazi. Rebels say they've fought back in Ajdabiya with whatever heavy weapons they have. But they're still outgunned, and civilians and rebel sources say water and electricity has been cut off to parts of the city; they also report food shortages.

The official Libyan news agency said Thursday the government will halt operations on Sunday to give the rebels time to hand over their weapons.

On state TV, Gadhafi offered amnesty to those who surrender, but "no mercy" to those who do not.

Rebel leaders dismissed the threats as part of Gadhafi's ongoing psychological warfare that continues alongside the real combat.

For a second day, Gadhafi's air force bombed Benghazi airport, though there was little damage reported.


If fighting intensifies in coming days, officials with the U.N. refugee agency on the border say they are preparing for the worst.

"If Benghazi falls and if the road to the border is not cut off, we can see a large influx of people," says Astrid Van Genderen Stort, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. "We already see a larger influx of people. We're positioning material — blankets, food, plastic sheeting, mats — whatever is needed for a larger influx."

Back in Musaed, the Libyan border town, businessman Mustafa Saleem is heading east with his family. He says he'll wait inside Egypt for a U.N. vote on a no-fly zone.

"The rebels really only need support from the no-fly zone because air power is the main advantage Gadhafi 's forces have over them," Saleem says.

But it's not clear that grounding Gadhafi's air force, if that happens, will halt his ground advances, which have been backed mostly by his tanks, rockets and artillery.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe canceled a trip to Berlin on Thursday to fly to New York for the U.N. vote. He said that if the resolution passes, airstrikes could start soon afterward — even as soon as Friday. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.