Thursday, March 17, 2011
By DAN BILEFSKY and KAREEM FAHIM
UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations Security Council approved a measure on Thursday authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians from harm at the hands of forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
The measure allows not only a no-fly zone but effectively any measures short of a ground invasion to halt attacks that might result in civilian fatalities. It comes as Colonel Qaddafi warned residents of Benghazi, Libya, the rebel capital, that an attack was imminent and promised lenient treatment for those who offered no resistance.
“We are coming tonight,” Colonel Qaddafi said. “You will come out from inside. Prepare yourselves from tonight. We will find you in your closets.”
Speaking on a call-in radio show, he promised amnesty for those “who throw their weapons away” but “no mercy or compassion” for those who fight. Explosions were heard in Benghazi early on Friday, unnerving residents there, Agence-France Presse reported.
The United States, originally leery of any military involvement in Libya, became a strong proponent of the resolution, particularly after the Arab League approved a no-fly zone, something that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called a “game changer”
With the recent advances made by pro-Qaddafi forces in the east, there was a growing consensus in the Obama administration that imposing a no-fly zone by itself would no longer make much of a difference and that there was a need for more aggressive airstrikes that would make targets of Colonel Qaddafi’s tanks and heavy artillery — an option sometimes referred to as a no-drive zone. The United States or its allies might also send military personnel to advise and train the rebels, an official said.
In the most strident verbal attack on Colonel Qaddafi to date by an American official, Mrs. Clinton said Thursday that the Western powers had little choice but to provide critical military backing for the rebels. “We want to support the opposition who are standing against the dictator,” she told an applauding audience in Tunisia on Thursday. “This is a man who has no conscience and will threaten anyone in his way.”
She added that Colonel Qaddafi would do “terrible things” to Libya and its neighbors. “It’s just in his nature. There are some creatures that are like that.”
The Qaddafi government responded to the potential United Nations action with threats.
“Any foreign military act against Libya will expose all air and maritime traffic in the Mediterranean Sea to danger and civilian and military facilities will become targets of Libya’s counterattack,” it said in a statement carried on Libyan television and the official news agency, JANA, Reuters reported. “The Mediterranean basin will face danger not just in the short term, but also in the long term.”
There were reports on Thursday that warplanes were already bombarding the outskirts of Benghazi for a second day, opening shots, perhaps, in the battle. And after days of batterings at the hands of Qaddafi loyalists, the opposition forces welcomed the promise of Western assistance.
Rebel leaders doubted that the loyalist forces could mount an assault on Benghazi tonight, in that they were still contesting Ajdabiya, 100 miles to the south, on Thursday morning. But witnesses said there were skirmishes on the road to Benghazi in the afternoon, about 30 miles from Ajdabiya.
Mohamed, a rebel spokesman in the embattled, rebel-held city of Misurata — the last major rebel foothold in the west — welcomed the new American tone. “We are very heartened yesterday by the moves in the United Nations Security Council and the urgency of the American stand,” he said, speaking over a satellite phone.
Forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi massed outside Misurata on Thursday, apparently in preparation for an attack. Musa Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Qaddafi government, confirmed that its forces were preparing to take the city in the same way they did Zawiyah, another western town that had been held by the rebels.
“It starts in the beginning by surrounding the city,” he said, “then moving slowly to avoid casualties.” Rebels in Zawiyah described heavy casualties — at least dozens — during the Qaddafi forces’ siege of that city.
“It should be finished up tomorrow if not today,” Mr. Ibrahim added.
Rebels in Misurata said that Qaddafi forces had so far appeared to hold back, though electricity, water and telecommunications remained severed a day after fighters held the town against an onslaught of tank and artillery fire.
Loyalist military units surrounded the strategically located town of Ajdabiya in the east, and were massing for a push up the road to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, 100 miles distant, rebel officials said.
On Wednesday the rebels had seemed to make some gains in Ajdabiya, the gateway to Benghazi and the Egyptian border. The Qaddafi forces, which had appeared to capture the city with ease on Tuesday afternoon, had withdrawn to the perimeter by Tuesday night, residents said, as rebel fighters patrolled the city streets and the battle flared at surrounding checkpoints.
The Qaddafi forces delivered an airstrike, followed by shelling by tanks and mortars on Wednesday, residents and rebel leaders said. Doctors said at least two people were killed Wednesday in addition to 26 deaths the day before.
By day’s end, it appeared that the rebels held control within the city, but that the loyalist forces had the city surrounded and could penetrate their opponents’ feeble defenses at will. Shortly after midnight on Wednesday, however, the explosions in Ajdabiya had given way to the sound of sporadic gunfights.
“The quiet is uncomfortable,” said Dr. Ahmed al-Jnashi, a doctor at the hospital there. “It’s abnormal. The streets are empty. People are afraid.” He said 38 people had died in two days of fighting, including two children in a car hit by a mortar round.
Dr. Jnashi said witnesses who came to the hospital on Wednesday night said government troops controlled the city’s eastern gate, on the approach to Benghazi, securing it with four tanks. “There is no media in the city,” he said. “No photographers.”
Rebel leaders boasted about their broader arsenal of weaponry — some aged warplanes and a helicopter — as well as their putative gains n Ajdabiya. But there were signs that the Qaddafi forces were simply massing for a renewed assault. The Associated Press, brought to Ajdabiya by the Qaddafi government to document its progress against the rebels, reported hundreds of pro-Qaddafi troops with tanks and artillery waiting outside Ajdabiya’s western gates. Truckloads of ammunition and equipment were reported to be arriving as well.
In Tripoli, the Qaddafi family sounded increasingly confident of victory. In an interview with a French television station, one of Colonel Qaddafi’s sons, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, told the rebels: “We don’t want to kill, we don’t want revenge. But you, traitors, mercenaries, you have committed crimes against the Libyan people: leave, go in peace to Egypt.”
He added: “Military operations are over. Within 48 hours everything will be finished. Our forces are almost in Benghazi. Whatever the decision, it will be too late.”
Colonel Qaddafi commands wide support in Tripoli, the capital and government stronghold, but perhaps not so deep. It seems divided between the manic celebration of those who shouted their allegiance and the shrugging resignation of those who admitted that they did not.
Asked how many Tripoli residents opposed Qaddafi, one shopkeeper said “100 percent.” But he was fatalistic. “Qaddafi is very strong. He killed many people. What can we do? He is the president,” even though Colonel Qaddafi holds no official title of office.
At a cafe in the neighborhood of Tajura — an anti-Qaddafi stronghold — patrons initially insisted with unmistakable sarcasm that everything in Tripoli was just fine. One man beckoned a friend to come talk to the foreign reporter, and his friend declined with a gesture signaling police handcuffs and a finger drawn across his neck.
Then, in whispers, the patrons acknowledged the protests staged there after midday prayers on recent Fridays, and said not to expect any more this week. They asked whether the West would launch airstrikes.
Despite the bluster by rebel leaders, some in the rebel strongholds were growing fatalistic about their hopes without international help. “People here are terrified,” said Ahmed al-Hasi, a former diplomat who left Benghazi on Wednesday for Bayda. “People are saying, ‘We fight until we die, or we surrender and we are humiliated and then we are killed,’ ” he said. “It will be a very, very bloody fight, and I know I will fight to the end.”
Dan Bilefsky reported from the United Nations and Kareem Fahim from Tobruk, Libya. David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting from Tripoli, Libya, and Steven Lee Myers from Tunis, Tunisia.