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As Gaddafi holds on, some Libyans seek foreign intervention

By Leila Fadel and Liz Sly
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; A01

BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Rebel leaders in eastern Libya called Tuesday for international military intervention to help topple Moammar Gaddafi, as the realization dawned that people power alone may not be enough to dislodge their nation's autocratic leader from his last remaining strongholds.

The rebels said they do not want ground forces, but they are increasingly coming around to the view that help in the form of a no-fly zone, as well as airstrikes and supplies of weaponry, will be necessary to ensure Gaddafi's fall.

U.S. military officials said the rebels have not yet asked them for help, and on Tuesday they played down the likelihood of the United States setting up a no-fly zone.

But in the eastern city of Benghazi, the center of the resistance, some members of the committee formed to run the city said they expected to issue a formal request for military assistance to the international community Wednesday.

And in Misurata, a town about 120 miles east of Tripoli that is besieged by Gaddafi's militias, a spokesman for the newly formed committees set up to run that town said residents also want foreign help against Gaddafi.

"A no-fly zone would limit his movements, his ability to move mercenaries from south to north and to recruit mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa," said a member of the media committee, Saadoun, who requested that he be identified only by a nom de guerre because Misurata remains hotly contested.

"Providing military equipment and arms to our free army in the east will help the free army march to Tripoli," said Saadoun in a telephone interview. "And we want surgical military strikes to target his militia and make this end swiftly and quickly and not to shed any more innocent Libyan blood."

The state of play in Misurata illustrates the risk of a protracted standoff, or even that Gaddafi loyalists may be able to reassert themselves.

Regime opponents are in full control of the center of the town, and several thousand held a large and peaceful demonstration in the main square Wednesday, according to residents and the spokesman. They also claim control over most of the vast military air base to the south.

But militias loyal to Gaddafi have retained control of a portion of the base, and there are near-daily confrontations between rebels and the militias along what has become a front line running through the airfield.

The militias also control a barracks on the edge of the town. And residents said that on Sunday night, gunmen presumed to be loyal to Gaddafi abducted 400 students from a remote military academy. The gunmen shot their way in, loaded the students onto buses and drove them to an unknown destination, said Saadoun, citing the accounts of two officers at the base who escaped.

Misurata lies on the coast between Gaddafi's home town of Sirte and the capital, Tripoli, where he still appears to command enough support to hold at bay the popular uprising that has engulfed other parts of Libya.

Saadoun said the people of Misurata have captured enough weapons from army units that defected to defend the town center but not enough to dislodge the militias from the outskirts.

In another sign that Gaddafi's forces may be recovering from the initial shock of the sudden uprising, the strategic mountaintop town of Gharyan, overlooking Tripoli, has been recaptured by government loyalists after falling to the opposition Friday, said a resident of the town quoted by the Associated Press.

Zawiyah, another town nominally in rebel hands but ringed by Gaddafi loyalists, repelled an attack by government forces overnight Monday, with both sides using tanks, antiaircraft guns and automatic weapons, the news agency reported.

Benghazi, which is 600 miles from the capital, is securely in rebel hands. Opinions there are divided on whether to call for foreign help, even as the town's February 17 Revolution Guidance Committee, which now runs the city, appeared ready to appeal for international intervention.

Rebel leaders have said that they are trying to form an army of volunteers and defected soldiers to march on Tripoli, but there has been no sign of such a force so far. And any army that did try to reach Tripoli would first have to take on Gaddafi's forces in Sirte.

Three committee members said the panel had resolved to call for foreign help, although some on the panel said they had misgivings about inviting intervention.

"We don't want another Afghanistan or Iraq," said one committee member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. "But there is no balance. He has all the weapons and the money."

fadell@washpost.com slyl@washpost.com

Sly reported from Cairo.

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