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Gaddafi forces launch new airstrikes; Obama mulls 'no-fly zone' request

By Leila Fadel, Steve Hendrix and William Branigin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 4:51 PM

BREGA, LIBYA - Forces loyal to Moammar Gaddafi launched new airstrikes against two key opposition-held towns and battled rebels in another Thursday, as President Obama indicated he was considering an opposition request to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.

A day after rag-tag rebel forces repelled a government offensive to recapture this vital oil port, thousands of mourners attended funerals for the victims of the attack and vowed to take revenge, shouting slogans such as, "Down with Gaddafi!" At least 10 people were reported killed in the fighting Wednesday, including a 7-year-old boy caught in the crossfire. But there were no immediate reports of casualties from Thursday's airstrikes.

In Washington, Obama renewed a demand that Gaddafi leave power and said his administration was examining "a full range of options" including military action to impose a no-fly zone, preventing Gaddafi from using his air force against the opposition movement that controls the eastern part of the country.

Obama also announced he is sending U.S. military transport planes to repatriate Egyptians who have fled to the Tunisian border and has authorized the U.S. government to charter civilian aircraft to help evacuees from other countries get home.

In his strongest condemnation of Gaddafi to date, Obama said: "The violence must stop. Moammar Gaddafi has lost legitimacy to lead, and he must leave. Those who perpetrate violence against the Libyan people will be held accountable. And the aspirations of the Libyan people for freedom, democracy, and dignity must be met." He added that the longtime strongman's supporters "should know that history is moving against Colonel Gaddafi."

Responding to questions in a White House news conference with visiting Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Obama said a no-fly zone to ground Gaddafi's air force "is one of the options that we would be looking at." But he stressed that any such decision needs to be made in consultation with NATO and the international community.

U.S. military officials have cautioned that imposing a no-fly zone would require first carrying out airstrikes to disable the Libyan air force and antiaircraft defenses. Russian officials have voiced strong opposition to a no-fly zone and said such a step would require approval from the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow holds veto power.

Rebel leaders in Benghazi, the center of resistance to Gaddafi's 41-year rule, called Wednesday for international airstrikes against government targets, as well as a no-fly zone.

Obama spoke after Brega 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.

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."

In Tripoli, meanwhile, the Gaddafi regime appeared to be stepping up reprisals against outspoken pro-democracy activists, although details of the situation in the capital were sketchy. Tripoli residents who once spoke openly about abuses to human rights groups and the media have gone silent. Many were reported to be detained or in hiding.

Benghazi residents said relatives in Tripoli were being forced to sign papers calling their dead sons criminals if they had been shot during demonstrations.

"It's a very wide crackdown," said Heba Morayef, a Cairo-based Human Rights Watch researcher, following a visit to Libya.

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."

fadell@washpost.com hendrixs@washpost.com

Hendrix reported from Cairo. Branigin reported from Washington. Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report

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