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Gaddafi foes consider requesting foreign airstrikes as stalemate continues

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 4:50 PM

BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Locked in a standoff with forces loyal to Moammar Gaddafi, opposition leaders here debated Tuesday whether to request foreign airstrikes against the longtime ruler's military installations and other key facilities.

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Members of a council governing Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city and the center of the anti-Gaddafi movement, said the issue has taken on increasing urgency amid a realization that the rebels cannot match the weaponry and firepower of the Gaddafi loyalists and that, without foreign help, the stalemate may never end.

"We want logistical foreign intervention, air embargoes, bombardments of air bases, communication centers and supervision of the coasts," said Muftah Queidir, a lawyer close to Benghazi's governing coalition. "Otherwise, the battle will take too long, and it will never end, and more people will die, and there will be a big question mark over the future of Libya."

Queidir, whose 26-year-old son was fatally shot on Feb. 19 by Gaddafi's forces, added: "The two sides are not equal. There needs to be intervention under the cover of the United Nations."

Three committee members later said they would make the request for airstrikes soon, reversing earlier pledges not to seek foreign military intervention. They said they now understand that they cannot match the military capacity or money that Gaddafi has at his disposal. But they stipulated that they still do not want any foreign ground troops in Libya.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Libya could face a "protracted civil war" without a strong U.S. response to the turmoil there. And a top U.S. military official cautioned that imposing a no-fly zone over Libya would require first crippling that country's air defenses, including surface-to-air missiles and the Libyan air force.

However, top Russian diplomats ruled out the idea of establishing a no-fly zone over Libya, the Associated Press reported. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the proposal "superfluous" and said new U.N. Security Council sanctions should be given a chance to work.

The Russian ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, used harsher terms, warning that foreign military action would be "a serious mistake" and a "violation of international law." He said even a no-fly zone would amount to "serious interference into the domestic affairs of another country" and would require a U.N. Security Council resolution.

The Benghazi council met after Libyan soldiers and paramilitary forces loyal to Gaddafi attempted Tuesday to retake territory that has been seized by rebels. Neither side appeared to gain ground, however, according to accounts of the fighting from residents and opposition officials.

In a six-hour battle, rebels armed with tanks, antiaircraft guns and automatic weapons repelled an overnight attack by government troops using the same weapons in the town of Zawiya, about 30 miles west of the capital, Tripoli, the Associated Press reported. The rebels celebrated Tuesday with a victory march through the city's main square, carrying on their shoulders an air force colonel they said had defected to them, the news agency said.

Opposition forces also beat back an attack by pro-Gaddafi troops in Misurata, Libya's third-largest city about 130 miles east of Tripoli. The troops, who control part of an air base on the outskirts of the city, tried to advance Monday night but were held off by armed residents and army defectors, AP said.

Faced with the stalemate and the looming difficulty of paying salaries to Benghazi citizens, 95 percent of whom have state jobs, people associated with the city's governing Feb. 17 Committee described a mood of growing demoralization.


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