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Libyan Rebels Gain Diplomatic Advance, but Retreat on Battlefield

Rebel fighters at positions outside Brega, Libya, show their support for the opposition and their enthusiastic belief that they will overthrow the government in Tripoli, March 10, 2011
Rebel fighters at positions outside Brega, Libya, show their support for the opposition and their enthusiastic belief that they will overthrow the government in Tripoli, March 10, 2011

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Libya’s opposition had success on the international stage Thursday, but setbacks in fighting against forces loyal to the country's leader, Moammar Gadhafi.


The opposition lost territory in both the east and west of the country, though the rebels here in Benghazi were buoyed by the recognition by France of the opposition administration.

Hundreds of supporters took to the streets in the opposition’s stronghold. They carried signs praising and thanking France for recognizing their new interim governing council as the representative of the Libyan people.

For 19-year-old Zarah this puts France in good standing in her heart and her favor. "They are good to us from the start, they stand with us since the beginning… So they good… We like France… We like them more… We like the government France."

For the rebel leadership, it means more than good tidings that France has recognized them. As opposition spokesman Mustaffa Geliani put it, it means some tangible steps forward for what he hopes will be the new government of Libya…

"At least as a legal government of this country we can request to purchase weapons if we have to," said Geliani… "We could address United Nations, formally, as a country, trying to protect ourself, which we couldn’t do that before… Once you have recognition and you are member of world community you can ask for things. Before we were doing it, in a sense, illegally, right? It’s a revolution. But today we have a voice. So we are quite optimistic… Time is on our side."

Time may not be on the side, however, for the fighters on the front lines. Counter-offensives by government troops are using overwhelming force and regaining territory with a bloody cost.

Even the rebel leadership now acknowledges the western town of Zawiya, near Tripoli, is back in the hands of forces loyal to Gadhafi after holding out for days.

In the east, the oil refinery town of Ras Lanuf is under intense pressure from airstrikes, artillery and naval bombardment. Rebel fighters were seen leaving. Reports from the town and refinery are that they were on the verge of falling into the hands of pro-Gadhafi forces.

If that happens, there are only a handful of small towns to slow down a government push across the desert. Just a bit more than 200 kilometers lie between Ras Lanuf and the opposition stronghold of Benghazi.

At a woman's rally in Benghazi, Libya, supporters show their appreciation that France has recognized the Transitional Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, March 10, 2011
At a woman's rally in Benghazi, Libya, supporters show their appreciation that France has recognized the Transitional Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, March 10, 2011

The rebels say, though, that they will make Gadhafi pay for every bit of that ground… They have moved up units that defected from the Libyan army to try to give order to what is primarily a force of enthusiastic but amateur fighters. In addition, they are throwing into the fight the heavier weapons they captured at the beginning of the uprising more than three weeks ago.

So Thursday, the opposition supporters were happy to see a win on the diplomatic front. With government forces headed their way, though, they still are pleading with the international community to stop debating and start acting by imposing the no-fly zone the rebels have been asking for.

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