Gadhafi vows to retake rebel east; UN eyes action
Thursday, March 17, 2011; 5:25 PM
TOBRUK, Libya -- Moammar Gadhafi vowed to launch a final assault on the opposition's capital Benghazi and crush the rebellion as his forces advanced toward the city and warplanes bombed its airport Thursday. In the face of Gadhafi's increasingly powerful offensive, the United Nations was to vote on a mandate Washington seeks to strike his forces on land, sea and air.
After weeks of hesitancy over imposing a no-fly zone in Libya, the United States made a dramatic about-face, calling for even more expanded action, including strikes on Gadhafi's ground forces besieging rebel-held cities.
The U.N. Security Council scheduled a vote early Thursday evening on a resolution that would open the way for that, establishing a no-fly zone but also authorizing member states to take all necessary measures" to protect civilians from attacks by Gadhafi's forces.
The change reflected the past week's swift reversal of the realities on the ground, where once-confident rebels are now in danger of being crushed under an overpowering pro-Gadhafi force using rockets, artillery, tanks, warplanes. That force has advanced along the Mediterranean coast aiming to recapture the rebel-held eastern half of Libya.
Gadhafi troops encircled the city of Ajdabiya, the first in the path of their march, but also had some troops positioned beyond it toward Benghazi, Libya's second largest city and the headquarters of the opposition's leadership.
In an address Thursday evening, Gadhafi proclaimed that the "hour of decision has come" and that his regime would begin "tonight" to put an end to the rebellion.
"The matter has been decided ... we are coming," he said, calling in by telephone to state TV and addressing the people of Benghazi. "There is amnesty for those who throw away their weapons and sits in their house ... No matter what they did in the past, (it's) forgiven," he said.
But for those who resist, he said, "there will be no mercy or compassion."
Gadhafi says his forces would "rescue" the people of Benghazi from "traitors" and warned them not to stand alongside the opposition.
"This is your happy day, we will destroy your enemies," he said. "Prepare for this moment to get rid of the traitors. Tomorrow we will show the world, to see if the city is one of traitors or heroes ... Don't betray me, my beloved Benghazi."
The closest known position of Gadhafi's ground forces from Benghazi was still about 80 miles (130 kilometers) to the south, making it unclear if they would move on the city Thursday night as Gadhafi boasted. But during the day, several regime warplanes bombed the city's Benina Airport.
Several witnesses said rebels in Benghazi succeeded in shooting down at least two of the attacking aircraft. Mohammed Abdel-Rahman, a 42-year-old merchant who lives nearby, said he saw one of the warplanes shot down after striking Benina - a civilian and military air facility about 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the center of the city. He said the strikes caused light damage.