BREGA, Libya — Forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi launched renewed airstrikes against two key rebel-held towns Thursday, a day after poorly armed citizens repelled a major government assault on the area.
In Washington, President Obama issued his strongest condemnation of Gaddafi to date and announced he was sending U.S. military planes to help repatriate Egyptians who have fled to the Tunisian border.
He did not rule out imposing a “no-fly zone” over Libya to ground Gaddafi’s air force, saying that was “one of the options” he has asked his administration to explore. But he stressed that any such decision needs to be made in consultation with NATO and the international community.
“We will continue to send a clear message: the violence must stop,” Obama said in opening remarks at a White House news conference with visiting Mexican President Felipe Calderon. “Moammar Gaddafi has lost legitimacy to lead, and he must leave. . . . The aspirations of the Libyan people for freedom, democracy and dignity must be met.” Obama previously had called for Gaddafi’s departure from power in a written statement.
In response to questions, Obama warned that Gaddafi’s supporters will be held accountable for violence they perpetrate against civilians. “They should know that history is moving against Colonel Gaddafi,” he said.
Obama spoke after Brega, a key oil port, was hit Thursday morning by at least three powerful airstrikes. There was also a strike near an army munitions storage unit just outside Ajdabiya, about 40 miles away. No casualties were reported in the airstrikes.
About 28 miles west of Brega, rebels clashed with Gaddafi loyalists Thursday in the Mediterranean coastal town of Bishra. Truckloads of rebel fighters left Benghazi to help their allies in Bishra. Details of the fighting there were not immediately available.
In The Hague, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court told reporters he would investigate Gaddafi and his inner circle for alleged crimes against humanity.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo vowed there would be “no impunity in Libya” and said he was contacting former Libyan officials and army officers to determine who would have ordered alleged attacks on peaceful demonstrators, the Associated Press reported. He said he is seeking video and photographic evidence of any alleged atrocities.
“We are not saying who is responsible yet,” Moreno-Ocampo said. “Today is the start of the investigation.”
Also Thursday, officials said a Dutch helicopter crew attempting to evacuate people from Libya had been captured over the weekend by forces loyal to Gaddafi. The three marines and their helicopter are still being held by Libyan authorities, a Dutch Defense Ministry spokesman told the Associated Press. He said officials are in “intensive negotiations” to secure their release.
On Wednesday — despite aged equipment and little training — a ragtag team of thousands of Libyan rebels rushed to Brega and drove back government forces, retaking the port city after setbacks earlier in the day.
Emboldened by their victory, some rebels said they planned to advance west and drive on to Gaddafi’s stronghold of Tripoli, the capital.
“He has the force, but we have the heart,” said Suleiman Abdel, a surgeon and, now, a rebel.
The government’s assaults on Brega show that Gaddafi still has substantial military resources at his disposal — and that he is willing to use them. Even as Wednesday’s battle unfolded, Gaddafi pledged in a defiant televised address to “fight to the last drop of Libyan blood.”
The day’s clashes suggested that in the absence of outside intervention, Libya could be headed toward a long and bloody stalemate. Gaddafi holds Tripoli and other western cities, the rebels control the east, and neither side appears able to decisively shift the balance.
“He showed he still has the power to inflict serious damage on the protesters and the places they control,” said Ibrahim Sharqieh of the Brookings Doha Center. “If he is willing to use the air force, this could drag on for months.”
Doctors said about 10 people were killed in Wednesday’s fighting, and others were injured. Thursday’s airstrikes do not appear to have caused any deaths or injuries.
Many families have fled to Benghazi, the center of the resistance in the liberated east. As the injured received medical treatment, people talked about when — not if — Gaddafi loyalists will return.
“We expect they will hit back for sure. They will not give up easily. It’s a very strategic place,” said Jaafar Senoussi, a laboratory supervisor at the state-owned Sirte Oil Company. He said almost all production from the gas and oil plants stopped more than a week ago. “Tomorrow or the next day, they will be back.”
The Arabian Gulf Oil Company in Benghazi is producing about 130,000 barrels of oil a day, reduced from 450,0000 barrels before the start of the popular uprising on Feb. 17, officials said. The company plans to separate from the National Oil Company in Tripoli but has not yet taken steps to divert the profits to the east, said Mayus Abdel Jalil, the information manager at the company.
Rebel leaders in Benghazi called Wednesday for international airstrikes against government targets, as well as a no-fly zone to keep Gaddafi’s planes out of the sky. But U.S. officials have said that such steps are unlikely.
The United States has spoken out against Gaddafi but has few contacts among the opposition.
Britain said Wednesday that Gen. Abdul Fattah Younis al-Obeidi, a former Libyan interior minister it described as “the senior military figure” among the rebels, had spoken by telephone with British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
According to a British government statement, Hague told Obeidi that Britain is “deeply concerned about the violence and is in the process of contingency planning for all eventualities, including a no-fly zone, in close conjunction with its allies.”
NATO and members of the U.N. Security Council have said that military intervention, including a no-fly zone, would require U.N. authorization. Russia and China, with veto power on the panel, have indicated that they would oppose such authorization.
In Washington, administration officials and lawmakers voiced widely divergent opinions about direct intervention. “If it’s ordered, we can do it,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said of a no-fly zone Wednesday. But Gates cautioned against “loose talk about military options.”
“A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy air defenses,” he said. “It also requires more airplanes than you would find on a single aircraft carrier. So it is a big operation in a big country.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) appeared to take issue with Gates’s comments. “This is not a big air force,” he said of Libya in an interview on MSNBC. “It’s not an enormously complicated defense system.”
Gaddafi appeared on state television Wednesday to deny the existence of a rebellion in Libya. During a nearly three-hour address in a chamber filled with chanting supporters, the leader dismissed the unrest as an isolated attack by Islamist terrorists.
Gaddafi, who seized power in 1969, warned the West that instability in his country could lead to an increase in Islamist terrorism and a flood of migrant African workers into Europe. He also cautioned that any foreign intervention would lead to “a bloody war.”
“He dives deeper and deeper into a state of denial and delusion,” said Sharqieh, an expert on conflict resolution in the region. “This is really dangerous. He seems comfortable with this situation now.”
The rebels, too, appear ready to carry on the fight.
Wednesday’s battle for Brega began when government fighter jets struck near a munitions dump at Ajdabiya. At least two other airstrikes were carried out Wednesday outside Brega, one near a concentration of rebel fighters.
Early in the day, government forces poured into Brega in more than 60 vehicles and briefly took control. Rebels from across the eastern region, some from as far as the border with Egypt, rushed to engage them. Truckloads of rebels flashed victory signs on the desert road, having armed themselves with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, machetes, meat skewers, rifles and antiaircraft guns.
In Ajdabiya, about 90 miles south of Benghazi, hundreds of men unloaded and cleaned old military weapons to give to young fighters heading to the front lines.
“These light weapons are not enough,” said Mohammed Sultan, 36, waving the rifle that he had used to attack Gaddafi forces.
Along Brega’s main road, fighters sheltered behind a small dune as government loyalists launched shells from the center of the city. Khamees Suwairi, a special forces soldier who had defected to the opposition, sat with a bazooka in the white sand before moving in to attack the government position.
“We will die for our freedom,” he said.
Moments later, a government warplane struck the spot where Suwairi had been.
By 6 p.m., after hours of fierce fighting, Gaddafi’s forces pulled back, and the town was again in rebel control.
About 5,000 fighters advanced farther west to Agail, 15 miles west of Brega. Others planned to move on to Tripoli.
An opposition spokesman said rebel leaders were not encouraging young men to go to Tripoli but could not stop volunteers from advancing west. Already, he said, they had lost 400 young men who had tried to go to Tripoli earlier in the week.
“Our position is still defensive,” said Mustafa Gheriani, the spokesman.
In Tripoli, people who had been talking to journalists in recent days stopped answering their phones.
One man in the capital, Jalal el-Hasia, was taken away by men armed with Kalashnikov rifles who went to his house in the middle of the night, said his brother, Attif el-Hasia.
Attif el-Hasia has been an unofficial spokesman for the opposition, and he said he thinks Jalal’s abduction amounted to retribution.
“I am staying in the revolution,” he said. “But my brother doesn’t have anything to do with this.”
Hasia begged for international help.
“Is this what the international community wants?” he said. “I want the Security Council to convene now. I want them to intervene now. Are we waiting for the massacre?”
Hendrix reported from Cairo. Branigin reported from Washington. Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.