Libya Rebels Say Ceasefire Possible
AJDABIYA, Libya (AFP) – Libyan rebels were digging in Friday in their battle with Moamer Kadhafi's forces for the oil town of Brega as leaders admitted they were ready for a ceasefire under the right conditions.
But the West backed off from arming the rag-tag band of fighters and pushed for a political solution instead.
An AFP correspondent citing rebel commanders said fighting had erupted around Brega, about 800 kilometres (500 miles) east of Tripoli Friday morning.
Rebels prevented reporters and civilians from leaving the strategic town of Ajdabiya for Brega, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) to the west, but it was unclear exactly where the frontline was or who controlled the refinery town.
The rebels had the previous day been beaten back by heavy shelling from Kadhafi's forces when they launched a counter-offensive at Brega in a bid to resume their march on Tripoli, started soon after the uprising against the hardliner's rule was launched on February 15.
The opposition is ready for a ceasefire provided Kadhafi's forces end their assaults on rebel-held cities, Transitional National Council leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil said Friday.
"We agree on a ceasefire on the condition that our brothers in the western cities have freedom of expression and also that the forces that are besieging the cities withdraw," Jalil told reporters in Benghazi after meeting Abdul Ilah Khatib, the UN special envoy to Libya.
It was clear, however, that the rebels were intent on cleaning up their act -- keeping civilians and raw recruits away from the frontline.
After weeks of near-anarchy, the Benghazi-based leaders of the insurrection seem to be putting their house in order in an attempt to combat the better-organised forces loyal to Kadhafi.
At the western entrance to Ajdabiya, a 54-year-old reservist, Abdelkarim Mansouri, explained: "We're implementing a new tactic. We don't want any more kids to die. War is not a game. These are the orders of the military council.
"You must be organised if you want to chase Kadhafi. Our army is now in control of the fighting."
Since the start of the fighting, the rebel ranks have been a motley crew of undisciplined brawlers, held together only by the lone desert highway.
Hamad Dahda hopes such indiscipline is over. "Since the start of the fighting, we've made mistakes and paid a heavy price," said the 36-year old banker from Tobruk.
"The youth have been dying. We have given a bad impression of ourselves with these pictures going out to the world. This has to change.
"The youth were getting up to the front any way they could, hoping they'd find enemy weapons lying around. But as soon as the bombing started, they ran for it, sowing panic, which creates problems for an army."
He says that since Thursday night vital reinforcements and heavy weaponry from all over eastern Libya have been passing through these iron arches, heading for the frontline.
A French journalist who specialises in military matters insists he saw a column of 10 'Stalin's Organs' -- Russian-made BM 21 Grad multiple rocket-launchers -- heading for Brega on Thursday night.
Rebel commanders called for air strikes by coalition forces enforcing a UN-mandated no-fly zone over Libya but the US military's top officer said bad weather was hampering the air campaign.
"The biggest problem the last three or four days has been weather," Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told senators in Washington, as correspondents at the front reported light cloud cover.
"We have not been able to see through the weather or get through the weather to be able to do this kind of identification" of targets, Mullen said.
Without air support, the ill-equipped rebels were on Wednesday pushed back 200 kilometres (125 miles) from the key oil hub Ras Lanuf all the way east of Brega, where they regrouped on Thursday for the counter-offensive.
As the rebels called for heavy armaments to match the superior firepower of Kadhafi's army, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates asserted they needed training more than guns but suggested other nations do that job.
His French counterpart Gerard Longuet said providing weapons was not part of the UN mandate while NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen too ruled out such a move.
"We are there to protect the Libyan people, not to arm people," Rasmussen told reporters.
Grilled by US lawmakers, Gates described the rebels as a "disparate," improvised force that had a supply of small arms seized at regime depots but sorely lacked military leadership.
"What they really need is training, command and control and some coherent organisation," the Pentagon chief told the House Armed Services Committee in Washington.
He said the military mission did not call for deposing Kadhafi and suggested ultimately it would be economic and political pressure and Libya's people -- not coalition air strikes -- that would topple him.
A day after the regime was rocked by the defection of foreign minister Mussa Kussa, a report said British officials held confidential discussions in London with Mohammed Ismail, a top aide to Kadhafi's son Seif al-Islam.
Citing a British government source, the Guardian newspaper said the meeting, one of a number between the two nations in the past two weeks, is believed to have addressed an exit strategy for Kadhafi and his regime.
Britain's Foreign Office refused to comment on the report other than to say it would not provide a "running commentary" on contact between the two countries.
The defections were read in the West as a sign the Kadhafi regime was beginning to crumble under pressure. But militarily, Kadhafi's forces showed they can still deliver blows to the rebels.
Mullen said about 20 to 25 percent of Kadhafi's military had been knocked out by NATO-led bombing but "that does not mean he's about to break from a military standpoint".