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Libyan Rebels Lose Ground As Powers Divided On Arming Them


Smoke billows as seven explosions rocked the capital, Tripoli, on March 29.
Forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi have overrun three eastern Libyan cities, as world powers considered arming outgunned rebel forces.

Loyalists supported by tanks and artillery reached the outskirts of Ajdabiya, some 160 kilometers east of the rebels' main stronghold of Benghazi, after retaking oil hubs Ras Lanuf, Uqayla, and Brega.

Qaddafi's latest counteroffensive came after rebel forces on March 29 had advanced within 100 kilometers east of Sirte, aided by coalition air strikes. In the west, loyalists were still besieging the rebel-held town of Misurata.

The United States and Britain, meanwhile, say they are not ruling out arming the rebel forces.

On March 29, U.S. President Barack Obama said the "noose" was tightening around Qaddafi, who has ruled the North African country for more than 40 years.

He told NBC Television the international strikes in Libya would eventually force Qaddafi to step down.

On the subject of the United States possibly arming the opposition, he said he was not ruling it out but he was also not ruling it in. "We're still making an assessment, partly about what Qaddafi's forces are going to be doing," he said.

Obama's comments were echoed today by British Prime Minister David Cameron, who told lawmakers that helping the Libyan opposition defend itself would not run counter to an existing UN arms embargo on the North African state.

"UN Security Council Resolution 1973 allows all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas, and our view is that this would not necessarily rule out the provision of assistance to those protecting civilians in certain circumstances," Cameron said.

Mixed Reactions

The prospect of arming Libya's insurgency has drawn mixed reactions within NATO, which was due today to take over all operations in Libya from a coalition led by the United States, France, and Britain -- and the international community at large.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen appeared to reject plans to arm the Libyan opposition on March 29. "We are there to protect people, not to arm people," he said.

And Belgium and Denmark -- both part of the coalition enforcing the no-fly zone -- have said they are against the idea.

The strongest opposition so far has come from Russia, whose foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, warned today that supplying the opposition with weapons would go beyond the United Nations' mandate.

Lavrov, however, reiterated calls for Qaddafi to abandon power and let the Libyan people determine their own future.

China has condemned the coalition strikes altogether.

Mahmud Shammam, a spokesman for the rebels, said the insurgents could topple Qaddafi in a matter of days if they had more weapons.

'Only Stoke More Violence'

But Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern Politics at the London School of Economics, says he disagrees. Arming the Libyan opposition, he says, would only stoke more violence.

"Libya is much more divided than President Obama or Prime Minister Cameron or French President [Nicolas] Sarkozy had hoped," he says. "Arming the opposition ensures that the divide between the opposition and the loyalists will become deeper, wider, and will embroil the West in a potential civil war in another Muslim country."

The issue or arming the rebels was not formally discussed at the London conference, whose 48 participants pledged to continue military action against Qaddafi and to create a contact group to coordinate political decisions on Libya.

The conference took place as new outbreaks of fighting erupted in Libya.

Opposition fighters have made significant gains since the UN Security Council on March 17 authorized a no-fly zone and military action to protect civilians.

But today, the better armed and organized pro-Qaddafi troops reversed the westward charge of the fighters and launched a counterassault that forced the rebels to retreat from Nawfaliyah, Bin Jawad, and the strategic oil town of Ras Lanuf.

Both Britain and Italy have suggested Qaddafi might be allowed to go into exile to bring a quick end to the six-week civil war, but U.S. officials have argued there is no evidence the Libyan leader is prepared to leave. Uganda today became the first country to offer Qaddafi refuge.

Starting To Add Up

In Washington, the U.S. Defense Department said the tab for just 10 days of U.S. military involvement in Libya had already hit $550 million.

With the United States already stretching to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan amid difficult financial times, the operation has come under criticism from lawmakers and ordinary Americans.

A poll published today by the U.S. Quinnipiac University found that nearly half of Americans were opposed to their country's military involvement in Libya.

written by Claire Bigg, with agency reports
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