Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Air strikes deter advance on Tripoli

DUBAI: With the opposition still unprepared to storm Tripoli, Libyan strongman Muammar Qadhafi continues to cling on to power in his home base, aware that the threat from his Air Force is deterring an all-out dissident assault on the capital.

Meanwhile, the dangerous flux in Libya continues to generate an outpouring of refugees in three directions — Egypt to the east, Tunisia to the west and Niger to the south. According to United Nations estimates, an estimated 61,000 people have fled into Egypt, 1,000 to Niger and 40,000 to Tunisia, causing an acute humanitarian crisis. Among those streaming out are the already registered refugees in Libya from Somalia and Sudan. In dissident-held areas such as Benghazi, they are being particularly hounded out, because of being confused with the hated mercenaries who are on Mr. Qadhafi's payroll.

On the battlefront, the scattered opposition, which is yet to unite under a steely single command, showed on Monday it is capable of defending itself in pockets which came under regime attack. But its capacity to launch a well-coordinated offensive, steered by an organised command centre in the opposition-held east, is in doubt. Nevertheless, thousands of volunteers queued up in Benghazi, the nerve centre of the opposition, to enlist in a citizens' army that is preparing to battle Mr. Qadhafi in Tripoli.

Signalling he is far from finished, Mr. Qadhafi on Monday ordered three air strikes, a special operations raid at the opposition held Ras Lanuf refinery, and sent units from the elite Khamis brigade to recover Zawiya, a strategic oil town held by the opposition that lies only 50 km west of the Libyan capital.

Two Soviet-era MIG-23 jets, one of them an escort, attacked two locations south of Benghazi, and an ammunition storehouse outside the eastern city of Ajdabiya. However, a fourth attack on an air base in Benghazi was aborted, after opposition forces opened up with heavy anti-aircraft fire.

The regime attack, using mercenaries, on Zawiya was easily repulsed. Later, a contingent of the elite Khamis brigade massed along the outskirts of the city.

The Air Force threat, which could prolong regime survival has imparted urgency to the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya. The American media is also reporting that the U.S. establishment was considering flying in humanitarian aid supplies in “liberated” east Libya, as well as going ahead with air evacuation missions.

While the protesters might welcome a no-fly zone, they are wary of American military activism otherwise. Abdel Fattah Younes, Libya's former Interior Minister, who has defected to the opposition, told Al Jazeera that “foreign troops” in Libya would not be welcome. Only during an emergency, of the kind that “any pilot was forced to eject, he will be hosted and protected by us”, he observed. The Libyans are also unlikely to welcome any European military intervention, on account of the bitter memories it is likely to evoke of European colonisation of North Africa.

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