Libyan rebels: 'Why won't the world help us?'

Protest movement pleads for intervention as Gaddafi's forces step up counter-attack
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The Independent Online

As Colonel Gaddafi's forces carried out bloody assaults on rebel-held towns yesterday, those on the receiving end of the wrath were increasingly asking a stark question: Why is the West failing to offer help in our desperate time of need?

Two frontline towns held by dissidents came under sustained attack and an oil facility was set ablaze yesterday during ferocious fighting that left dozens dead as Gaddafi forces rolled back military gains of the opposition.

The feeling was growing in opposition ranks that the disorganised and disunited political and military leadership of the protest movement would not withstand for much longer the sustained pressure being applied by Colonel Gaddafi's forces.

Western powers who wish the rebels well remain divided about the feasibility or desirability of intervention, but the momentum behind Gaddafi's fightback seems undeniable.

The Benghazi-based rebel leadership has called for a no-fly zone and airstrikes against the regime. Former justice minister Abdel Jalil, one of its leading members who had a price put on his head by the regime yesterday, said that the West must "help to protect Libya's people from Gaddafi's assault and help put an end to his war".

British and US officials were at pains to play down any hopes of swiftly putting a no-fly zone in place during a Nato defence ministers' meeting in Brussels. "We want to see the international community support it," Hillary Clinton said. It was "very important that this not be a US-led effort," the Secretary of State said, voicing the Obama administration's determination not to be seen as leading a Western military attack on a Muslim country without a specific international mandate.

The British and French governments have said they are drafting a UN Security Council resolution banning military aircraft over Libya, but it would be unlikely to pass given Russia and China's opposition to such a move.

Hopes that the revolution could bring four decades of dictatorship to an end were being replaced by the fear that the regime will crush its opponents with firepower. The strategic oil port of Ras Lanuf in the east of the country was pounded by an artillery barrage interspersed with air strikes. Zawiya, in the west, which became a symbol of resistance, had, according to regime officials, been recaptured.

A doctor in the town said he had counted about 50 dead from the fighting by late afternoon. A Libyan army captain in the regime's forces declared: "Security is at about 95 per cent. There are some rats lying in alleys, hiding in flats. We are capturing them one group after another."

The two sides blamed each other for igniting a pipeline and storage tanks at the port of Sidra, outside Ras Lanuf, the second largest oil outlet for the country. An orange fireball rose up into the sky just after a warplane had streaked overhead. However, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar fire had been exchanged a short time before in the same location.

Rebel fighters, the Shabab, had attempted to advance to Bin Jawad and claimed at one stage to have reached the outskirts of the town. But they were driven back with losses and last night regime troops were advancing towards Ras Lanuf with a number of tanks and trucks carrying troops.

Four men were killed and 18 injured in Ras Lanuf in the bombardment and the town, near empty with most of the residents having fled, was preparing for the arrival of the enemy.

More than 400 people had been killed in the east since the disturbances started on 17 February, said Dr Gebril Hewadi, of the Benghazi Medical Centre. "We need help, we need this help urgently or we are lost," said Yunus Astarsi, a doctor at the general hospital in the nearby city of Ajdabiya. "We need medicine, we need food supplies and we need the international powers to stop his bombings so every day we do not face this," he added.

Asking for assistance from the West has not been the first choice of the protest movement. Days after the uprising, posters had been put up in liberated cities stating "No to foreign intervention. Libyans can do it alone".

The situation on the ground has changed this stance with members of the provisional government in Benghazi asking first for the imposition of a no-fly zone and then air strikes.

But there is a feeling among the public as well as officials that there must be a limit to the extent of Western protection. "We cannot have foreign troops on the ground, we don't want to be another Iraq," said Abu Bakr Ibadullah, a 44-year-old engineer at the city of Ras Lanuf. He was leaving the city with his wife and three children to seek safety with his brother further east in Tobruk. "We are not soldiers, we are ordinary people who are defending ourselves," added Mr Ibadullah. "Gaddafi is using his planes to bomb us. If America and Europe can stop that, by stopping these planes, we shall have a chance."

But the revolution may need more than a no-fly zone to survive. Outgunned by the regime's forces, the rebels are increasingly turning on each other as they see their early successes being reversed. Mehdi Ibrahimi, a 22-year-old Shabab volunteer, spoke of his bitterness at what he described as the lack of enthusiasm among members of the Libyan military who had changed sides and were part of the revolutionary force.

An earlier attempt to take Bin Jawad had failed with many of the rebel fighters killed or injured. Those taken captive were later shown on Libyan state television, their hands tied behind their backs. A Libyan officer stood in front of them saying to the camera: "This is a message. We have killed you in Bin Jawad, we shall kill you in Ras Lanuf, we shall kill you wherever we find you in Libya."

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