TRIPOLI, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi's forces battled poorly armed rebels Tuesday for control of towns near the capital trying to create a buffer zone around his seat of power. The increasingly violent clashes threatened to transform the 15-day popular rebellion in Libya into a drawn-out civil war.
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Amid the intensified fighting, the international community stepped up moves to isolate the longtime Libyan leader.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he ordered two ships into the Mediterranean, including the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge, and he is sending 400 Marines to the vessel to replace some troops that left recently for Afghanistan.
Military leaders weighing a no-fly zone over Libya said it would be a complex task that would require taking out Gadhafi's air defenses, and Russia's top diplomat dismissed the idea as "superfluous" and said world powers should focus on sanctions.
Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam, warned Western forces not to take military action against Libya and said the country is prepared to defend itself against foreign intervention.
"If they attack us, we are ready," he told Sky News, adding that the Gadhafis are ready to implement reforms.
Facing an unprecedented challenge to his 41-year rule, Gadhafi's regime has launched the bloodiest crackdown in a wave of uprising against authoritarian rulers in the Middle East. Gadhafi has already lost control of the eastern half of the country but still holds Tripoli and other nearby cities.
An exact death toll has been difficult to obtain in the chaos, but a medical committee in the eastern city of Benghazi, where the uprising began on Feb. 15, said at least 228 people had been killed, including 30 unidentified bodies, and 1,932 wounded.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has cited reports that perhaps 1,000 have died in Libya.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Congress that the U.S. must lead an international response to the crisis, including expanding already tough financial and travel sanctions against Gadhafi, his family and confidants and possibly imposing a no-fly zone over Libya.
"In the years ahead, Libya could become a peaceful democracy, or it could face protracted civil war. The stakes are high," she said.
Gadhafi's regime has retaken at least two towns and threatened a third, while rebels repulsed attacks on three other key areas – Misrata to the east, Zawiya to the west, and the mountain town of Zintan to the south of the capital.
One of those retaken was the strategic mountain town of Gharyan, the largest in the Nafusa Mountains, which overlooks Tripoli, a resident said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of government retaliation. The town fell after dark Friday in a surprise attack, and the government troops detained officers who defected to the rebels and drew up lists of wanted protesters and started searching for them, the resident added.
Gadhafi supporters also have said they were in control of the city of Sabratha, west of Tripoli, which has seemed to go back and forth between the two camps in the past week.
But witnesses in Zawiya, 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of the capital, said rebels shouted "Allahu akbar (God is great) for our victory," and carried an air force colonel who had just defected after six hours of overnight gunbattles failed to dislodge anti-Gadhafi forces who control the city.
"We were worried about air raids but that did not happen," said one resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The Zawiya rebels have tanks, machine guns and anti-aircraft guns. They beat back pro-Gadhafi troops, armed with the same weapons, who attacked from six directions. There was no word on casualties.
In Misrata, 125 miles (200 kilometers) east of Tripoli, pro-Gadhafi troops who control part of an air base on the city's outskirts tried to advance Monday. But they were repulsed by opposition forces, who included residents with automatic weapons and defected army units allied with them, one of the opposition fighters said.
No casualties were reported and the fighter claimed that his side had captured eight soldiers, including a senior officer.
The opposition controls most of the air base, and the fighter said dozens of anti-Gadhafi gunmen have arrived from farther east in recent days as reinforcements.
In Zintan, 75 miles (120 kilometers) south of Tripoli, residents said an attack by pro-Gadhafi forces Monday night was the second since the city fell in rebel hands late last month. But, they added, Gadhafi's loyalists were bringing in reinforcements.
One person in Zwara, which fell to anti-government forces days ago, said guards were posted at every sensitive building and all the entrances to the town.
"We are threatened every day by pro-Gadhafi forces," the nervous Zwara resident said, adding that a pro-Gadhafi figure met with the town's leaders a few days ago and told them they had "a choice" to go back in to orbit "and he will forget what happened, or else he is going to attack us with military force. He even offered us money."
One sergeant in the Libyan army who is of Tuareg ethnicity and is fighting on Gadhafi's side said the military is divided.
"Us foreigners, we don't have much choice. We have to support Gaddafi," he said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press in Mali. "It because of him we are here."
He added that everyone who supports Gadhafi has not been watching any foreign news.
"There is nothing that's going to convince Gaddafi to quit," the soldier said. "The only way Gaddafi is going to go is if someone puts a bullet in his head, and I can't imagine that. The soldiers who are close to him would never let it happen."
Many young citizens of Mali and Niger who flocked to Libya in the 1970s and 1980s were ethnic Tuaregs and were recruited into an "Islamic Legion" modeled on the French Foreign Legion.
With fears high that Gadhafi could wage airstrikes against his own people, the European Union and the United States have raised the possibility of a no-fly zone over Libya – a tactic used successfully in northern Iraq and Bosnia.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the idea "superfluous" and said world powers must instead focus on fully using the sanctions the U.N. Security Council approved over the weekend. Russia is a veto-wielding member of the Security Council.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, meanwhile, urged Gadhafi to consider exile, saying she's worried the African nation could plummet into a "humanitarian disaster."
"It's important that he get off the stage," Rice said told CBS on "The Early Show."
Follow the latest updates below.
03/11/2011 6:31 PM EST
U.S. Extends Sanctions On Libya
Reports the AP:
The Obama administration extended its Libya sanctions to more Gadhafi family members and close advisers on Thursday, blacklisting business with the Libyan leader's wife, four of his children and his chief of military intelligence.
The Treasury Department froze the assets of nine Libyans in all as part of the strategy to peel off Moammar Gadhafi's closest advisers while punishing those who remain loyal to the regime even as it commits human rights violations.
The sanctions come on top of those previously announced by the administration, which accounted for $32 billion in Libyan government assets blocked in the United States.
03/11/2011 5:33 PM EST
Sarkozy Calls For Air Strikes If Gaddafi Attacks Civilians
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for airstrikes against Gaddafi forces if the leader attacks civilians. According to the Guardian:
Nicolas Sarkozy has called for targeted air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi's regime if his forces use chemical weapons or launch air strikes against civilians.
As the EU foreign policy chief, Lady Ashton, warned that a no-fly zone could risk civilian lives in Libya, the French president told an emergency EU summit in Brussels that air strikes may soon be justified.
"The strikes would be solely of a defensive nature if Mr Gaddafi makes use of chemical weapons or air strikes against non-violent protesters," Sarkozy said. The French president qualified his remarks by saying he had many reservations about military intervention in Libya "because Arab revolutions belong to Arabs".
03/11/2011 5:06 PM EST
Dutch Helicopter Crew Freed
A Dutch helicopter crew taken captive in Libya has been freed and sent to Greece. The BBC is reporting:
The two men and one woman arrived in Athens on a Greek military transport plane hours after a son of Muammar Gaddafi announced their release.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi said Libya would hold on to the crew's Lynx helicopter.
The woman pilot, Yvonne Niersman, took part in a mission last year to free a German ship from Somali pirates.
Ms Niersman and her fellow crew members were captured in Libya after flying in from the Dutch warship Tromp, anchored off the coast.
Read the entire report here.
03/11/2011 4:43 PM EST
McCain Praises Moroccan King
Senator John McCain praised Morocco's King Mohammed VI for his pledge to introduce democratic reforms. According to the AFP:
"This new reform agenda builds on the king's long-standing commitment to lead Morocco to a future of reform and modernization, and it could ensure that the Kingdom of Morocco will continue to stand as a positive example to governments across the Middle East and North Africa," said McCain.
03/11/2011 3:40 PM EST
Gaddafi Offers Amnesty To Rebels
Reuters is reporting that Gaddafi is now offering to offer amnesty to those rebels who lay own arms.
03/11/2011 3:28 PM EST
2 Protesters Killed In Tunisia
The AP reports:
Tunisia's Interior Ministry says a new eruption of violence between police and protesters has killed two people and injured 20.
The ministry says on its Facebook page that police fired tear gas and demonstrators threw stones and gasoline bombs.
The statement says two protesters were killed in the incident in Metlaoui, a mining town in the center of the Mediterranean country.
The violence comes as Tunisia's interim government is trying to restore stability after deadly protests that drove out longtime leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January. That prompted uprisings around the Arab world.
03/11/2011 2:39 PM EST
Berlusconi Says Hardline With Gaddafi A Mistake
Berlusconi is saying that the West may have made a mistake by taking a hardline against Gaddafi, which may have backed the Libyan leader into a corner. Reports Reuters:
The hardline stance taken by major powers against Muammar Gaddafi may have backed the Libyan leader into a corner and prevented a quiet exit, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Friday. Speaking after a special meeting of EU leaders, Berlusconi, one of Gaddafi's closest friends in Europe until the current upheaval, said the chances of persuading him to give up power voluntarily now appeared to have disappeared.
"Once someone put forward the idea of bringing Gaddafi before the International Criminal Court, I think the idea of staying in power became entrenched with him and I don't think anyone can make him change his mind," he told reporters.
Read the entire report here.
03/11/2011 2:16 PM EST
Who Are The Libyan Rebels?
The AP is reporting that the rebels fighting Gaddafi forces are amateurs, but deeply committed to the cause:
Moammar Gadhafi has ruled Libya since long before the 25-year-old was born, and he hates the dictator enough to risk his life by fighting for the ragtag rebel force battling government troops along a desolate highway on the North African country's Mediterranean coast.
"I will fight forever. I will die or win, like Omar Mukhtar," said Salem, invoking the legendary Libyan hero who fought Italian occupiers in the 1930s, was ultimately executed, and has become a symbol for the new revolutionaries.
The front-line force trying to advance toward Gadhafi's stronghold in the capital Tripoli is surprisingly small. Not counting supporters who bolster them in the towns along their path, it is estimated at 1,500 at most — Libyans from all walks of life, from students and coffeeshop owners to businessmen who picked up whatever weapons they could and joined the fight. No one seems to know their full size, and they could be picking up new members all the time.
Its ramshackle nature explains the dramatic lurches the fighting has taken. Last week, they took control over a stretch of Mediterranean coastal land that included major oil installations in the ports of Brega and Ras Lanouf. They charged enthusiastically further west, reaching within a few dozen miles of Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, a bastion of support for the leader of 41 years.
03/11/2011 1:03 PM EST
Gaddafi Forces Show Signs Of Victory
Reports the AP:
Moammar Gadhafi's regime has gained momentum with the capture of a key city near Tripoli after days of fierce fighting with rebels.
The battle for Zawiya has emerged as a key test in the government's ability to maintain its hold on the Libyan capital and surrounding areas.
The government had claimed victory on Wednesday, but the rebels who are seeking to oust Gadhafi said fighting was ongoing.
An Associated Press reporter, who was escorted with other journalists into the city on Friday, says the main square that had been the center of resistance is clearly in government control.
03/11/2011 12:47 PM EST
Obama On Libya
Obama noted all of the sanctions and property seizures that have already been implemented against Gaddafi, saying, "Across the board, we are tightening the noose on Gaddafi." He says that NATO is discussing potential military actions in Libya, including a no-fly zone, and will meet on Tuesday. He said that a position will be created for a liaison to speak with Libyan opposition groups. He said that the international community had moved quickly to isolate Gaddafi.
Obama said that no options have been taken off the table so far. In response to a question about whether it would ever be acceptable to the U.S. for Gaddafi to stay in power, Obama stated that "it is in the U.S.' interest and the interest of the Libyan people for Gaddafi to leave." He added, however, that when making a decision to engage militarily, he would weigh the "costs and benefits."