Libya: Foreign Ministry Defects, Allies Debate Arming Retreating Rebels
Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi suffered a major blow with the defection of his foreign minister, as his forces on Thursday bombarded a rag-tag rebel army and NATO ruled out sending them arms.
AFP reporters said running battles raged on Thursday on the edge of Brega, with Kadhafi's forces shelling the insurgents who returned fire with Grad rockets and rocket-propelled grenades.
The fighting came a day after Kadhafi's forces overran Ras Lanuf and Uqayla, scattering the outgunned rebels and pushing them back to a point just east of Brega, an oil refinery town 800 kilometres (500 miles) from Tripoli.
Experts said the opposition lacks anti-tank weapons, radios and other basics, but above all the disjointed, chaotic force needs some rudimentary training.
But as a debate raged over whether Western powers should arm the insurgents, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Stockholm such a move was beyond the scope of the alliance.
"We are there to protect the Libyan people, not to arm people," Rasmussen told reporters.
"As far as NATO is concerned, and I speak on behalf of NATO, we will focus on the enforcement of the arms embargo and the clear purpose of an arms embargo is to stop the flow of weapons into the country," he said, hours after NATO took full command of all Libyan operations early Thursday.
France, which on Tuesday had indicated it was ready to discuss sending arms shipments to the insurgents, on Thursday ruled out such a step, saying it is not compatible with a UN resolution on the conflict.
"Such assistance is not on the agenda because it is not compatible with resolution 1973," the UN Security Council Resolution that authorised UN members to intervene to protect civilians, Defence Minister Gerard Longuet told reporters in Paris.
The defection of foreign minister Mussa Kussa, the most senior figure to jump ship since the uprising against Kadhafi's iron-clad 41-year rule erupted more than six weeks ago, was widely seen Thursday as an indication that the strongman's regime is crumbling.
Kussa arrived at Farnborough Airfield, west of London, on Wednesday, a Foreign Office statement said.
"He travelled here under his own free will. He has told us that he is resigning his post," it added.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague insisted that Kussa, who has been blamed for atrocities including the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, had not been offered immunity from prosecution in British or international courts.
"Mussa Kussa is not being offered any immunity from British or international justice," Hague told reporters.
He said the minister was being interviewed "voluntarily" by British officials.
"He said that he is resigning his post. We are discussing this with him."
Kussa's defection was a "sign that the regime's days are numbered," defected immigration minister Ali Errishi told France 24 television on Thursday.
"It is the end... it is a blow to the regime (and) others will follow," said Errishi who himself defected soon after the insurrection began.
"Kussa was his most trusted aide. Kadhafi no longer has anybody. It's just him and his kids."
Libya’s former deputy ambassador to the UN, Ibrahim Dabbashi, told France 24 in a separate interview that Kussa's defection "was very important at this stage because he knows a lot of secrets of the regime. He has been working with the Kadhafi regime for a long period now."
"He's been involved with the regime in the latest period. He knows how Colonel Kadhafi is directing the operations against the revolutionary forces and how he behaved even inside his own closed circle. Maybe he has more information about the intentions of many high officials around Kadhafi."
The New York Times, meanwhile, reported that the United States and Britain had inserted covert intelligence agents into Libya to make contact with rebels and to gather data to guide coalition air strikes.
The White House refused to comment on the apparent shadow war and also declined to discuss another report that President Barack Obama had signed a secret order allowing Central Intelligence Agency operations in the country.
Another senior defector meanwhile, rebel commander Major General Suleiman Mahmoud, told BBC's Newsnight that his forces needed time and help -- including weapons -- to overcome the Kadhafi regime.
"Our problem (is) we need help: communication, radios, we need weapons," he told the news programme.
The ragtag army of armed civilians backed by several thousand defected soldiers lacked discipline, he admitted, however.
"We have a plan (but) they don't obey that.
"We tried to do some raids at night (but the Kadhafi forces) destroyed many of our cars. We need just time... they will be organised... we need patience and we need help."
Libyan rebel takes position at the west gate of the eastern city of Ajdabiya. Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi suffered a major blow with the defection of his foreign minister even as his forces again proved too strong for the rebels' rag-tag army.
Even with weapons, however, it could take weeks and even months to turn the rebels into a genuine fighting force capable of holding ground and coordinating firepower with troop movements, according to said Dakota Wood, a retired US Marine officer.
"They're certainly willing but you're starting from a very low baseline, almost non-existent in terms of the professional use of arms," Wood told AFP.
Militarily, Wednesday was a terrible day for the rebels as superior firepower from Kadhafi's forces saw them driven back 200 kilometres from the oil town of Ras Lanuf to a point about 20 kilometres east of Brega.
Awad Alurfi, a former army captain turned rebel fighter, said Libyan rebels Thursday tried to reverse the setback by taking the fight to the loyalists in Brega.
He said at least one rebel had been killed on Thursday in the fight for the town.
"There are small groups of Kadhafi forces inside the town. They are driving around shooting at people," Alurfi said.
Five air strikes were heard by AFP reporters around Brega, although it remains unclear what they were targeting.
The rebels said they were awaiting more air strikes before they attempt to launch a full assault on the town.