News / Africa

Libyan Rebels Move on Gadhafi's Hometown

A convoy of rebels travel in the direction of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte city near Bin Jawad, March 28, 2011
A convoy of rebels travel in the direction of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte city near Bin Jawad, March 28, 2011

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Elizabeth Arrott

Libyan opposition forces are fighting for control of Sirte, the hometown of their avowed enemy, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. The rebels have taken swift advantage of a U.N.-backed military campaign that is now under NATO command.

Government forces have retreated from towns east of Sirte, allowing the rebels to sweep along the northern coastal highway. They are now believed to be encountering some resistance from loyalist troops on the outskirts of the town. Rebel forces have claimed they were in control of Sirte, but witnesses in the town report no signs of their presence.

A resident of Ras Lanouf, which was retaken by the rebels Sunday, says rebel forces have been seizing weapons as they move westward.

Oil worker Tarik el Maresh says the fact that the rebels were able to capture the weapons is proof of their strength as they move on to Sirte.

In Sirte, residents said they heard blasts from what they assumed were the coalition air campaign early Monday.  

Those U.N.-backed strikes appear to have been crucial in allowing the rebels to reverse their fortunes, bringing them from the brink of collapse to once again on the offensive.

In Tripoli late Sunday, government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim decried the campaign.

"Clearly the west, NATO, is taking sides in this civil conflict,” Ibrahim said. “It is illegal, hasn't been allowed or permitted by the Security Council resolution and it's immoral."

Libyan state television Monday showed video of civilians said to have been wounded in the coalition strikes in Sabha, about 200 kilometers south of Tripoli. The report could not be independently confirmed.

NATO, which declares it is neutral in the conflict, has now assumed full control of the mission, both the enforcement of a no-fly zone as well as extra measures meant to protect civilians. In the ten days since the campaign has been under way, that has included strikes on Ghadafi forces.

While others have joined in the questioning of the mission, in particular those parts that go beyond the no-fly zone, there appears to still be support in the region even though the targets remain pro-Gadhafi positions.

Political analyst Ziad Akl, of the Ahram Strategic Center in Cairo, says there are suspicions of Western military action in yet another Arab country, but this campaign will likely not carry with it any taint to the rebels.

"Despite the presence of opposing voices - no, the intervention does not limit the legitimacy of the rebels, because the majority of the participants, and the majority of those witnessing the events in Libya seem very much pro-western intervention," said Akl.

Not least of all it seems, because it appears very effective. Akl notes that the campaign has worked in two ways.

"It threatened the security of safe places that al-Gadhafi forces need to retreat now to guard,” Akl added. “And it also is a materialization of the process of regrouping and restructuring that the opposition forces witnessed through the last week."

The question now is whether that momentum can continue into the larger cities in the west, where loyalist forces are expected to dig in against the poorly equipped and loosely organized rebels.

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