Advancing forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi drove rebels from the oil port of Brega yesterday as Western governments absorbed an unexpectedly strong call by the Arab League for a no-fly zone to help rebels prevent the regime overrunning the rest of Libya.
The latest reverse for an uprising which a week ago had seen the entire eastern half of the country in the hands of opposition forces will add fresh urgency to the calls for international help to halt the regime's counter-offensive before it is too late.
Such calls were heavily reinforced at the weekend when the 22-member Arab League, meeting in Cairo, said the Libyan government had lost its "sovereignty" and called on the UN Security Council to "shoulder its responsibility" by imposing a no-fly zone. The League's secretary general, Amr Moussa, said that it had decided the regime's "serious crimes and great violations" had robbed it of its legitimacy.
As the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, prepared to fly to Europe and the Middle East – on a tour that will include the administration's highest level yet meeting with Libyan opposition leaders today – the Arab League decision will put further pressure on President Barack Obama to overcome deep reservations in Washington about the wisdom and effectiveness of a no-fly zone.
Meanwhile, a military official for the regime dismissed claims by rebel forces of mutiny by troops advancing on Misrata, the most westerly town held by the opposition. The claim came amid reports of regime forces shelling suburbs and a shortage of medicines in the town.
The military official, Milad Hussein, told reporters in Tripoli that those in Misrata who surrendered their weapons would be left unharmed. He added: "Some are handing in their weapons and some are under discussion." Others, he said, would be "treated according to the situation".
The reverse in Brega, with no confirmation of claims last night that rebels had returned to take back the town, came three days after rebel forces abandoned Ras Lanuf, another strategic oil town 90 miles further to the west.
Over 370 miles east of Tripoli, Ras Lanuf bears clear signs of the precipitate flight eastwards of both fighters and residents in the face of earlier air, sea and land attacks by Gaddafi forces, when foreign journalists were brought here from the capital on Saturday evening.
With those still in the town virtually limited to regime forces – both army and militia – some waving green Libyan flags and touring the streets triumphantly in Toyota pick-ups, oil workers' houses in a compound close to the now empty hospital were all deserted, some with shoes left outside unfastened doors and uneaten food still inside. The lock on a metal door to a pharmacy and baby goods shop had been shot open with bullets, but most of its stock – including Lemsip and baby oil – was still lining the shelves.
A massive plume of dense black smoke rose from a flaming oil storage facility next to the key refinery east of the town, forming a belt of dark cloud running some 50 kilometres westwards along the Mediterranean coast. Local officials said that "al-Qa'ida" forces – increasingly the regime and its supporters' description of the rebels – had fired missiles at the refinery during their hasty retreat from Ras Lanuf. While one anti-Gaddafi sign in the town had yet to be painted out, a militiaman was hastily spraying pro-Gaddafi graffiti on a wall at the entrance.
The regime has installed dozens of checkpoints along the 120-mile road between Ras Lanuf and the Gaddafi stronghold of Sirte, several with bright lights facing east to pick out any suspect traffic travelling towards the capital at night.
The desert scrubland along the most easterly 20-mile stretch between Bin Jawwad and Ras Lanuf, which the opposition had held for five days, was littered with used shell cases, empty ammunition boxes, and a few burnt-out pick-up trucks, one with its machine-gun emplacement still smouldering from last week's fighting.
In Bin Jawwad – the most easterly town reached last week by anti-government fighters and held by them for two days until they were forced back by regime forces – burned and blown-out houses, a shelled school and police station, and the charred and mangled remains of a parked Volvo testified to fierce fire, with the damage to the east side of the school suggesting that much of it came from the Gaddafi forces which retook the town.
One student, Salem Mohammed, 19, said: "The town would have been destroyed without the army." He added that he had remained in his house for a day and a half and had not spoken to the opposition fighters.
But tobacconist Walid Ahmed, 27, repeated a general depiction of the rebel forces first formulated by Gaddafi over two weeks ago when he insisted without evidence that the "gangs" who had advanced on Bin Jawwad had been from "Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Algeria, from al-Qa'ida," and that some had been "drugged". He said the rebel forces killed two men in front of him.
Meanwhile Khaled Kaim, the regime's deputy foreign minister, said they had detained al-Qa'ida operatives involved in the revolt, including a Libyan who had been captured in Zawiya, and would be making them available to television networks for interview.
But claims of foreign and al-Qa'ida instigation were offset by Mr Hussein's assertion that some of those who had attacked military compounds had been Libyans who knew them well because of their previous military service.
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