Libya rebels, regime loyalists in standoff

By Leila Fadel and Liz Sly
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; A13

BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Forces loyal to Moammar Gaddafi carried out airstrikes and skirmished with rebels in parts of Libya on Monday, but neither side appeared to gain ground, according to accounts of the fighting from residents and officials allied with the opposition.

In a seeming standoff for control of the North African country, paramilitary groups allied with Gaddafi were unable to recapture any of the cities or territory held by the opposition, despite episodic attacks that included the use of helicopters and airplanes, residents and opposition officials said. The strikes demonstrated that the regime remained able to fight back with potentially lethal weaponry.

The loosely organized rebels have so far been unable to push into Gaddafi's Tripoli stronghold and achieve their ultimate goal of ousting him from power - a fact made evident by Gaddafi's hosting of U.S. and U.K. reporters at a seaside restaurant in the capital.

Opposition groups have asked the international community to keep any aircraft still under Gaddafi's control from flying or firing on them.

In what amounted to his first news conference since protests broke out in the country, Gaddafi held court with reporters from ABC, the BBC and London's Sunday Times - a performance U.S. officials promptly labeled "delusional."

He said he could not step down from power because, under Libya's peculiar "stateless" form of socialism, he is not a president or a king. He also asserted that there have been no demonstrations against him in Tripoli, the capital city, ABC News reported Monday.

"My people love me," ABC's Christiane Amanpour quoted Gaddafi as saying. "They would die for me." She said Gaddafi also denied ever using force against his people, accused al-Qaeda of encouraging young people to seize arms from military installations and said he felt betrayed by the United States.

"I'm surprised that we have an alliance with the West to fight al-Qaeda, and now that we are fighting terrorists they have abandoned us," he said. "Perhaps they want to occupy Libya."

With opposition groups in control of much of Libya's coast and edging close to Tripoli, fighting broke out Monday in Misurata, 125 miles east of Tripoli, when residents fired at a helicopter that was trying to destroy the antenna of the local radio station - an important communications tool for the opposition.

According to residents of the town and a witness account, the helicopter was armed with missiles, but flew away after opposition supporters opened fire. It was the third time in as many days that helicopters have attempted to attack the antenna or the radio station, residents said.

The residents were contacted by telephone and spoke on the condition of anonymity because they fear for their lives.

Though Misurata was overrun by protesters last Thursday, Gaddafi loyalists are still holding out at an airbase and a barracks on the edge of the town. There are daily attacks and counterattacks between the two sides, the residents say.

On Monday night, two people were killed and one was injured by sniper fire coming from the barracks, according to hospital officials, bringing to 34 the number killed in recent days. More than 300 have been wounded, the officials said.

A helicopter also attacked a military weapons depot Monday in Heniya, just outside Ajdabiya, a town about 100 miles south of Benghazi, said Idriss Sharif, an adviser to a committee that has come together to manage Benghazi.

A fighter pilot from the air force base in Benghazi, an opposition stronghold 600 miles east of the capital, said weapons and ammunition have been moved from storage units in case of a strike on the base. Over the past few days, the air force here has been setting up anti-aircraft weapons to protect against airstrikes on the town, the center of resistance against Gaddafi's regime.

At 4 p.m. Monday, an airstrike hit just south of the airport, slamming into a weapons depot in Rajma village, said an official at the Benina airport, outside the city. Earlier in the day, fighter jets were circling over the airport but did not strike, the airport official said.

Sly reported from Cairo. Staff writer Anthony Faiola in Tunisia contributed to this report.

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