Libyan Rebels Driven Out Of Strategic Coastal City

March 10, 2011

NPR Staff and Wires

Marco Longari
Smoke billows from the fighting in Sidra, 6 miles west of Ras Lanuf.
Roberto Schmidt
Shrapnel flies through the air as a tank shell explodes near Libyan rebel fighters defending their last position against Gadhafi's loyalist forces at Ras Lanuf on Thursday.

Libyan rebels were forced to retreat from a key oil port Thursday in the face of a withering air and ground assault by troops loyal to leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Swooping low and fast, Gadhafi's warplanes hammered the area around Ras Lanuf with bombs. The rebels fought back with anti-aircraft guns that were largely ineffective.

Rebel fighter Ahmed al Tajouri told NPR that the opposition forces were outgunned.

"We are eight men in my group and we have only one gun between us," he said, holding up a well-worn Kalashnikov rifle.

The rebels said Libyan army officers who have joined the opposition cause advised them to retreat.

In a news conference, in the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi, opposition leaders denied the retreat from Ras Lanuf, insisting that while it was under heavy attack, their fighters were holding the ground.

In a hospital recovery room in Ajdabiya, well behind the rebels' front lines, Mustafa Ramadan said he had been wounded in an airstrike.

"We were near the mosque in Ras Lanuf and heard jets," he told NPR. "We ducked down and I started running away.

"Then a bomb landed near me," he said. "It knocked me off my feet and smashed me into a car."

Ras Lanuf demarcated the western front in the rebels' struggle to advance toward Gadhafi's stronghold in Tripoli. Although the loss of the city was a huge blow, opposition fighters vowed to retake it, Garcia-Navarro said.

Controlling Ras Lanuf would re-establish Gadhafi's power over a badly damaged but vital oil facility and push his zone of control further along the main coastal highway running from rebel territory to the capital.

On Wednesday, Gadhafi's forces claimed to have recaptured Zawiya, the city closest to Tripoli. Western journalists based in the capital were taken to a stadium on the outskirts of Zawiya that was filled with Gadhafi loyalists waving green flags and launching fireworks. Libyan TV cameras filmed the celebrations as food, drinks and cooking oil were distributed.

U.S. Suspends Relations With Libyan Embassy

The Obama administration said Thursday that it was suspending relations with the Libyan embassy in Washington, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she would meet with opposition leaders in the U.S., Egypt and Tunisia.

At a Senate hearing, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said the White House believes that "Gadhafi is in this for the long haul."

"Our intelligence shows that he has no intention of leaving. He appears to be hunkering down for the duration," Clapper said.

Addressing a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Clapper said Libyan government forces were better equipped and "over the longer term, that the regime will prevail."

His remarks angered committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who told Fox News that Clapper's statement showed a "lack of situational awareness" and called on him to resign or be fired.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said later that Graham had misinterpreted Clapper's remarks. Carney reiterated the president's full faith and confidence in his director of national intelligence.

"We'll soon be sending disaster assistance relief teams into eastern Libya," White House National Security Advisor Tom Donilon told reporters on a telephone conference call.

Donilon also said the U.S. is "prepared to send diplomats to Benghazi to engage the opposition" and has been "in direct contact with the opposition through a variety of channels."

France To Begin 'Dialogue' With Rebel Government

The fierce fighting on the ground came as France extended a symbolic recognition to Libya's rebels. Hours later, European Union ministers passed a resolution calling on member nations to recognize the opposition's provisional government, based in the eastern city of Benghazi, as the "sole legitimate authority" in the country.

The EU also added five financial institutions to a list of more than two dozen individuals close to the Libyan leader whose assets and resources will be frozen. Germany also froze billions of dollars from Libya's central bank and state-run agencies.

"There is no further cooperation with Gadhafi possible," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Brussels. "Sanctions must be broadened; more have to be decided so that Gadhafi gets no fresh money to pay mercenaries that he uses against his own people."

Earlier Thursday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with two representatives of Libya's opposition Provisional Transitional National Council. He promised to exchange ambassadors, according to his office, which described the move as a political gesture, not a legal recognition.

"We must now engage in dialogue with the new representatives in Libya," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.

Meanwhile, NATO leaders met in Brussels to discuss possible military responses to the violence in Libya, including imposing a no-fly zone to effectively ground Gadhafi's air force.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the alliance will pursue contingency planning for a no-fly zone but is not ready to act on that or any other military action against the North African nation.

"We all agreed that NATO will only act if there is a demonstrable need and a sound legal basis and strong regional support," Gates said, adding, "We are very mindful of opinion in the region."

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said air-space restrictions over Libya could be implemented only with "a clear U.N. mandate."

Britain and France have backed the rebels' calls for a no-fly zone. Sarkozy said his government was planning "targeted operations" to defend civilians if the international community approves.

Meanwhile, the U.N. special investigator on torture said he will examine allegations of torture he has received since the anti-government uprising in Libya began last month.

Juan Mendez said he cannot disclose the content of those reports until the investigations are concluded.

"But I can ... talk about violations," he said, including "extrajudicial executions."

Mendez said he had only received allegations of torture perpetrated by the Gadhafi government and no allegations against the rebels.

BBC Says Journalists Beaten By Gadhafi Troops

The BBC said Wednesday that three of its television journalists had been assaulted by Libyan security forces after they were arrested at a government checkpoint near Zawiya.

The three men, part of a BBC Arabic team, said they were detained by Gadhafi loyalists Monday and held for 21 hours before being released.

The journalists were beaten with fists, knees and rifles, hooded and subjected to mock executions by Libyan troops and secret police, according to the BBC.

One of the men, Chris Cobb-Smith, said he and the others were moved between several locations where they saw civilian captives with visible injuries from heavy beatings. He said the journalists were taken to a military barracks in Tripoli, where they were handcuffed and blindfolded, and they feared they would be executed.

"We were lined up against the wall. I was the last in line — facing the wall," Cobb-Smith said.

In a statement, the BBC said it strongly condemned the "abusive treatment" of its journalists but would "continue to cover the evolving story in Libya for our audiences both inside and outside the country."

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called the treatment of the journalists described in the BBC report "completely unacceptable and in serious violation of international law."

On Thursday, Brazilian newspaper Estado de S. Paulo said one of its correspondents who has been missing for more than a week had been jailed by the Gadhafi government but was about to be released.

Andrei Netto was arrested because of mistakes he made in forms he filled out to enter the country, according to Libya's ambassador to Brazil, Salem Omar Abdullah Al-Zubaidi.

There was no word on the whereabouts of a correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian. Gaith Abdul-Ahad, an Iraqi journalist, has not been heard from since Sunday.

With reporting from NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Ras Lanuf, Libya; Eric Westervelt and Teri Schultz in Brussels, Belgium; Rachel Martin in Washington, D.C.; and Lisa Schlein in Geneva, Switzerland. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.