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Libya Rebels Advance, Buoyed By Allied Airstrikes

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LIBYA FIGHTING

ZWITINA, Libya -- Libya's rebels scrambled to try to exploit international strikes on Moammar Gaddafi's forces and go on the offensive, as some of the opposition's ragtag citizen-fighters charged ahead to fight troops besieging a rebel city Monday. But the rebellion's more organized military units were still not ready, and the opposition disarray underscored U.S. warnings that a long stalemate could emerge.

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The air campaign by U.S. and European militaries has unquestionably rearranged the map in Libya and rescued rebels from the immediate threat they faced only days ago of being crushed under a powerful advance by Gaddafi's forces. The first round of airstrikes smashed a column of regime tanks that had been moving on the rebel capital of Benghazi in the east.

Monday night, Libyan state TV said a new round of strikes had begun in the capital, Tripoli, marking the third night of bombardment. But while the airstrikes can stop Gaddafi's troops from attacking rebel cities – in line with the U.N. mandate to protect civilians – the United States, at least, appeared deeply reluctant to go beyond that toward actively helping the rebel cause to oust the Libyan leader.

President Barack Obama said Monday that "it is U.S. policy that Gaddafi has to go." But, he said, the international air campaign has a more limited goal, to protect civilians.

"Our military action is in support of an international mandate from the Security Council that specifically focuses on the humanitarian threat posed by Col. Gaddafi to his people. Not only was he carrying out murders of civilians but he threatened more," the president said on a visit to Chile.

In Washington, the American general running the assault said there is no attempt to provide air cover for rebel operations. Gen. Carter Ham said Gaddafi might cling to power once the bombardment finishes, setting up a stalemate between his side and the rebels, with allied nations enforcing a no-fly zone to ensure he cannot attack civilians.

Henri Guaino, a top adviser to the French president, said the allied effort would last "a while yet."

Among the rebels, as well, there was a realization that fighting could be drawn out. Mohammed Abdul-Mullah, a 38-year-old civil engineer from Benghazi who was fighting with the rebel force, said government troops stopped all resistance after the international campaign began.

"The balance has changed a lot," he said. "But pro-Gaddafi forces are still strong. They are a professional military and they have good equipment. Ninety percent of us rebels are civilians, while Gaddafi's people are professional fighters."

Disorganization among the rebels could also hamper their attempts to exploit the turn of events. Since the uprising began, the opposition has been made up of disparate groups even as it took control of the entire east of the country.

Regular citizens – residents of the "liberated" areas – took up arms and formed a ragtag, highly enthusiastic but highly undisciplined force that in the past weeks has charged ahead to fight Gaddafi forces, only to be beaten back by superior firepower. Regular army units that joined the rebellion have proven stronger, more organized fighters, but only a few units have joined the battles while many have stayed behind as officers struggle to get together often antiquated, limited equipment and form a coordinated force.

Meanwhile, a "political leadership" has formed, made up of former members of Gaddafi's regime who defected along with prominent local figures in the east, such as lawyers and doctors. The impromptu nature of their leadership has left some in the West – particularly in the United States – unclear on who the rebels are that the international campaign is protecting.

The disarray among the opposition was on display on Monday.

With Benghazi relieved, several hundred of the "citizen fighters" barreled to the west, vowing to break a siege on the city of Ajdabiya by Gaddafi forces, which have been pounding a rebel force holed up inside the city since before the allied air campaign began. The fighters pushed without resistance down the highway from Benghazi – littered with the burned out husks of Gaddafi's tanks and armored personnel carriers hit in the airstrikes – until they reached the outskirts of Ajdabiya.

Along the way, they swept into the nearby oil port of Zwitina, just northeast of Ajdabiya, which was also the scene of heavy fighting last week – though now had been abandoned by regime forces. There, a power station hit by shelling on Thursday was still burning, its blackened fuel tank crumpled, with flames and black smoke pouring out.

Some of the fighters, armed with assault rifles, grenade launchers and truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, charged to the city outskirts and battled with Gaddafi forces in the morning. A number of rebels were killed before they were forced to pull back somewhat, said the spokesman for the rebels' organized military forces, Khalid al-Sayah.

Al-Sayah said the fighters' advance was spontaneous "as always." But the regular army units that have joined the rebellion are not yet ready to go on the offensive. "We don't want to advance without a plan," he told AP in Benghazi. "If it were up to the army, the advance today would not have happened."

He said the regular units intend to advance but not yet, saying it was not yet ready. "It's a new army, we're starting it from scratch."

By Monday afternoon, around 150 citizen-fighters were massed in a field of dunes several miles (kilometers) outside Ajdabiya. Some stood on the wind-swept dunes with binoculars to survey the positions of pro-Gaddafi forces sealing off the entrances of the city. Ajdabiya itself was visible, black smoke rising, apparently from fires burning from fighting in recent days.

"There are five Gaddafi tanks and eight rocket launchers behind those trees and lots of 4x4s," one rebel fighter, Fathi Obeidi, standing on a dune and pointing at a line of trees between his position and the city, told an Associated Press reporter at the scene.

Gaddafi forces have ringed the city's entrance and were battling with opposition fighters inside, rebels said. The plan is for the rebel forces from Benghazi "to pinch" the regime troops while "those inside will push out," Obeidi said. He said a special commando unit that defected to the opposition early on in the uprising was inside the city leading the defense.

Regime troops are also besieging a second city – Misrata, the last significant rebel-held territory in western Libya. According to reports from Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, new fighting erupted Monday at Misrata, Libya's third largest city, which the forces have shelled repeatedly over recent days while cutting off most food and water supplies to residents.

So far, allied bombardment has concentrated on knocking out Libyan air defenses, but a significant test of international intentions will be whether eventually the strikes by ship-fired cruise missiles and warplanes will try to break the sieges of Ajdabiya and Misrata by targeting the Gaddafi troops surrounding them.

Al-Sayah said there had been allied strikes against Gaddafi positions outside Ajdabiya early Monday, but there was no independent confirmation, and the troops were still in place Monday afternoon.

Ali Zeidan, an envoy to Europe from the opposition-created governing council, told The Associated Press that rebels want to drive Gaddafi from power and see him tried – not have him killed. He said that while airstrikes have helped, the opposition needs more weapons to win the fight.

"We are able to deal with Gaddafi's forces by ourselves" as long as it's a fair fight, he said in Paris. "You see, Gaddafi himself, we are able to target him, and we would like to have him alive to face the international or the Libyan court for his crime .... We don't like to kill anybody ... even Gaddafi himself."

At the Pentagon, Ham said Monday afternoon that during the previous 24 hours, U.S. and British forces launched 12 Tomahawk land attack missiles, targeting regime command-and-control facilities and a missile facility and attacking one air defense site that already had been attacked.

"Through a variety of reports, we know that regime ground forces that were in the vicinity of Benghazi now possess little will or capability to resume offensive operations," he said.

A spokesman for the French military, whose warplanes have been conducting strikes in the Benghazi region, said there is a "very clear scale-down in the intensity of combat and, therefore, threats to the population" because of the bombardment.

"There still are pro-Gaddafi elements in the zone where we're working. Nevertheless, these elements haven't necessarily been dealt with because they are mixed in, for example with the civilian population," Thierry Burkhard said.

___

Associated Press writers Hadeel al-Shalchi in Tripoli, Libya, Diaa Hadid in Cairo, Jamey Keaten and Cecile Brisson in Paris, and Lolita C. Baldor and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

@ BreakingNews : Anti-Gadhafi fighters in Misurata say 28 people had died in the city in the past three days - Al Jazeera http://bit.ly/ecR130

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Gaddafi forces have reportedly captured the wife of Moussa Koussa, the former Foreign Minister who defected while in England. Reports the Telegraph:

The wife of the Libyan foreign minister who defected to Britain earlier this week has been seized by Colonel Gaddafi and is being interrogated by his "internal security" officials, The Daily Telegraph can disclose.

She is thought to have been captured amid eyewitness reports of a fierce gunfight at Col Gaddafi's central Tripoli compound as the regime stepped in to stop further defections.

Yesterday, local residents recalled how the most fierce firefight yet seen in central Tripoli had erupted within hours of the regime confirming that the Foreign Minister had defected.

Read the entire report here.

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NBC's Ann Curry tweets that the U.S. will move to support missions only:

@ AnnCurry : NBCNews: US military will stop flying COMBAT missions over Libya, only SUPPORT missions incl reconnaissance, starting April 2.

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Channel Four correspondent Jonathan Rugman spoke with Libya's former Prime Minister Abdul Ati al-Obeidi, who said that Gaddafi is trying to set up talks to stop the killing. During the interview, Obeidi told Rugman, "We are trying to talk to the British, the French and the Americans to stop the killing of people. We are trying to find a mutual solution."

Watch a report from Channel Four on the Libya talks below:

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Despite complaints to the contrary, the U.S. Senate actually did support a no-fly zone over Libya. The AP reports:

Some lawmakers are grousing loudly that President Barack Obama sent the nation's military to Libya without Congress' blessing. They're ignoring a key fact: The Senate a month ago voted to support imposing a no-fly zone to protect civilians from attacks by Col. Moammar Gadhafi's forces.

With no objections, the Senate on March 1 backed a resolution strongly condemning "the gross and systematic violations of human rights in Libya" and urging the U.N. Security Council to take action, "including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone over Libyan territory."

There was no recorded vote. It was simply approved by unanimous consent.

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Reuters reports:

@ Reuters : FLASH: Libyan government rejects rebels' conditions for ceasefire, says troops will not leave Libyan cities

Reuters adds:

"They are asking us to withdraw from our own cities. .... If this is not mad then I don't know what this is. We will not leave out cities," said Mussa Ibrahim, the government spokesman.

Read more here.

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Robert Haddick, writing at Foreign Policy, argues that the rebels need combat skills much more than they need heavy artillery. He writes:

On March 30, it was reported that CIA officers were in Libya with the rebels, making an assessment of their situation and possibly directing airstrikes in support of their fighters. We can gather from open sources much of what these intelligence officers are likely to report. As a military force, Libya's rebels are a disorganized rabble and seem incapable of preparing and holding defensive positions or maneuvering effectively against rudimentary enemy resistance. The rebels need boot camp, fundamental infantry training, and the development of some battlefield leaders, not a new stockpile of weapons.

Those Western leaders whose plan currently consists of hoping that Qaddafi will be spontaneously overthrown need to think again. Absent a Western invasion of the country, the rebel force is the only means of removing Qaddafi, and the rebels will need many months or even years of training before they are capable of defeating loyalist ground units and marching all the way to Tripoli.

Read the entire piece here.

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Gunfire has been reported in Gaddafi's compound. Reuters reports:

Sustained gunfire rang out near Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's heavily fortified compound in Tripoli on Friday and residents said they saw snipers on rooftops and pools of blood on the streets.

It was not clear what triggered long bursts of machinegun and automatic gunfire that echoed around the city center for about 20 minutes and stopped before dawn.

Cars were heard speeding along central Tripoli streets, their tires screeching on the asphalt. Distant shouting or chanting also was heard.

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A journalist who was picked up by Libyan security details his ordeal. Here's an excerpt of his story from Reuters:

We sat quietly. I turned to Chris, a London-based Canadian I had worked with in Iraq. I said I thought they would kill us.

A soldier opened the lock and the rear door swung open again. We looked down at the back of a station wagon which had been opened up to reveal some blankets. I thought they would perhaps drive us away. Maybe they were going to free us?

But a closer look showed feet poking under the blankets.

Soldiers then pulled aside the coverings and hauled three handcuffed young men up and in beside us. When we were locked in again, they told us they were Libyan university students.

Later, several soldiers came in. "Who are you?" one asked me. We are Reuters journalists, I said. He is our driver. We have permission. We were invited here by your government.

The soldier shook his head. "Bad time to be a journalist in Libya." Reporters were part of a foreign conspiracy against Libya, he said. But then he made it clear that if they decided we were not journalists but spies, that would be worse.

"If you tell us the truth, it should be fine, God willing. But if we catch you lying, oh we will show no mercy. None."

Read the rest here.

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Libyan rebels have made a deal to sell oil to Qatar. Reports the AP:

A plan to sell rebel-held oil to buy weapons and other supplies has been reached with Qatar, a rebel official said Friday, in another sign of deepening aid for Libya's opposition by the wealthy Gulf state after sending warplanes to help confront Moammar Gadhafi's forces.

It was not immediately clear when the possible oil sales could begin or how the arms would reach the rebel factions, but any potential revenue stream would be a significant lifeline for the militias and military defectors battling Gadhafi's superior forces.

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Gaddafi forces are attacking home in Misrata, according to rebels. Reuters reports:

Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi are mounting an intense artillery bombardment of rebel-held Misrata and pro-Gaddafi troops are attacking shops and homes in the city center, a rebel spokesman said.

Misrata is the last big rebel stronghold in western Libya but after weeks of shelling and encirclement, government forces appear to be gradually loosening the rebels' hold on the city, despite Western air strikes on pro-Gaddafi targets there.

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The Associated Press reports:

Libya's rebels will agree to a cease-fire if Moammar Gadhafi pulls his military forces out of cities and allows peaceful protests against his regime, an opposition leader said Friday.

Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the opposition's interim governing council based in Benghazi, said the rebels' condition for a cease-fire is "that the Gadhafi brigades and forces withdraw from inside and outside Libyan cities to give freedom to the Libyan people to choose and the world will see that they will choose freedom."

Read more here.

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Libyan rebels moved towards the key oil town of Brega on Friday, as conditions drifted towards a stalemate. Reuters reports:

Libyan rebels moved heavier weaponry toward the oil town of Brega on Friday and sought to marshal rag-tag units into a more disciplined force to regain momentum against Muammar Gaddafi's regular army.

While military action appeared to drift toward stalemate, coalition diplomatic efforts focused on breaking Gaddafi's hold on power in Tripoli. London urged Gaddafi loyalists to abandon him, following the defection of Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa.

Rebels said neither side could claim control of Brega, one of a string of oil towns along the Mediterranean coast that have been taken and retaken several times by each side in recent weeks. The insurgents have failed to hold gains, even when helped by Western air strikes.

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From Al Jazeera:

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle says Libya's crisis cannot be resolved through military means and all sides must get to work on a political resolution.

Westerwelle said on a visit to China that a first step must be a cease-fire that is heeded by Gaddafi.

More details here.

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BBC News reports that U.S. senators are drafting legislation that would authorize the use of force in Libya. The senators include John Kerry and John McCain.

The 1973 War Powers Act says US armed forces must start to withdraw after 60 days unless explicitly authorised to fight by Congress. In the case of Libya, that mark would fall on 20 May, Mr Kerry said.

More here.

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The National Journal reports that the U.S. may be on a slippery slope when it comes to the Libyan mission:

It’s an old question, but we’ve been through enough of these interventions now --from Vietnam to Kosovo to Afghanistan--to insist on asking it once again: Is the United States on a slippery slope in Libya, one that will lead to American military involvement on the ground? The evidence, on balance, is that under President Obama the U.S. presence is going to expand quickly—but covertly.

Read the full article here.

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Reuters reports that Libya's top oil official, Shokri Ghanem, has denied rumors that he left the country.

Al Jazeera television listed Ghanem as one the figures who had left Libya, but Ghanem said in a phone call, "This is not true, I am in my office and I will be on TV in a few minutes."

More here.

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BBC News reports that London Mayor Boris Johnson, a Conservative, offers his concerns about involvement in Libya:

"I am worried that what we may be doing inadvertently is entrenching support for the mad colonel... I do worry that if we get into a stalemate, if the rebels don't seem to be making the progress we hope they would make, then we should be brave enough to say to ourselves our policy isn't working."

More here.

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The New York Times reports that as a second top Libyan official, Ali Abdussalam el-Treki, defects from the Gaddafi government, fears mount within the regime.

The capital of Tripoli was alive with rumored defections on Thursday, with the prime minister and the speaker of Parliament, among other top figures, said at various times to be quitting the country. None of those reports could be verified. But the authorities were taking no chances, assigning guards to senior officials to assure they cannot leave, a former Libyan official said.

More here.

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BBC News reports that, according to U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen, international air strikes have been hampered by bad weather over the past few days.

According to AFP, Mullen says that they have not been able to see through the weather to identify targets. "And that has more than anything else reduced the impact... reduced the effectiveness, and has allowed the regime forces to move back to the east."

More here.

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Al Jazeera reporter Anita McNaught discusses the defections in Libya:

"We got word from sources outside of Tripoli that there were at least four senior figures from the Gadaffi administration who were perhaps in Tunisia, or certainly outside the country and not intending to go home. These were, last night as we understood it, the current head of the Intelligence Service, the Oil Minister (and I'll mark a question mark with that in a minute), the Secretary of the General People's Congress, and the Deputy Foreign Minister."

More here.

WATCH:

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BBC News reports on apparent threats in London by a pro-Gaddafi protestor:

Libyan state television has broadcast footage showing a pro-Gaddafi protestor in London yanking open his jacket and vowing to turn himself an "explosive bomb", a video on YouTube shows. The incident is said to have occurred at the protest near the Foreign Office in Whitehall on 29 March. In the clip, which has been circulated widely on social media, the man refers to anti-Gaddafi protestors as "traitors and rats", and exhorts Libyans to "return to the Koran."

More here.

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The Guardian reports that Mohammed Ismail, a senior aide to Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam, has traveled to London for confidential talks with British officials.

It is suggested that the regime may be looking for an exit strategy. There is speculation that Gaddafi's sons, namely Saif al-Islam, Saadi and Mutassim, are looking for a way out.

Although he has little public profile in either Libya or internationally, Ismail is recognised by diplomats as being a key fixer and representative for Saif al-Islam.

According to cables published by WikiLeaks, Ismail has represented the Libyan government in arms purchase negotiations and acted as an interlocutor on military and political issues.

"The message that was delivered to him is that Gaddafi has to go and that there will be accountability for crimes committed at the international criminal court," a Foreign Office spokesman told the Guardian , declining to elaborate on what else may have been discussed.

More here.

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The Associated Press/Huffington Post report:

Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan continued his defense of embattled Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi during a press conference in Chicago Thursday, and slammed the United States' decision to get involved in the conflict.

The 78-year-old leader of the Chicago-based organization spoke at Mosque Maryam, the Nation of Islam headquarters, according to the Chicago Tribune.

"It is a terrible thing for me to hear my brother called all these ugly and filthy names when I can't recognize him as that," Farrakhan said of Gaddafi, according to the Tribune. "Even though the current tide is moving against him ... how can I refuse to raise my voice in his defense? Why would I back down from those who have given so much."

Farrakhan has publicly defended Gaddafi a number of times since the Libyan uprising began. He reportedly visited the Libyan leader in the 1980s, and told attendees of a Nation of Islam convention in February that the United States should stay out of Libya's affairs.

Full report here.

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Breaking News reports on Twitter that according to the UK Independent, Britain is in talks with ten more Gaddafi officials about possible defection.

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BBC News provides the account of a witness in Tripoli.

According to the witness, any anti-government dissidents who spoke out publicly were deemed by officials as mentally ill and thus detained indefinitely. Because of this, the witness is not surprised that Iman al-Obeidi was immediately described as mentally ill last week.

She is not the first case of rape we have heard of here.

I have heard of two other cases in recent weeks. One of them was of a Moroccan housekeeper who was left behind by her employers as they fled to a safe house because half their family members had been detained.

The story that circulated through word-of-mouth was that security forces stormed the house she was staying in with the intention of detaining the rest of the family. Finding her alone there instead, they raped her.

Read the full account here.

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AP reports:

A top Libyan diplomat now supporting the opposition says most high-rank Libyan officials are trying to defect but are under tight security and having difficulty leaving the country.

Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya's deputy U.N. ambassador, told The Associated Press on Thursday that Libya's U.N. Mission, which now totally supports the opposition, knew two days in advance that Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa planned to defect.

"This is a big blow to the regime," Dabbashi said.

He said the mission had been waiting for about 10 days for Ali Abdessalam Treki, a former foreign minister and U.N. General Assembly president named by Moammar Gadhafi to be the new U.N. ambassador, to defect. Treki announced his defection Thursday in Cairo.

More here.

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Libya's Transitional National Council has released a statement on counter-terrorism. The council says that it condemns and will combat all forms of terrorism.

Regarding al-Qaeda, the council states:

It emphasizes also its full commitment to the implementation of the relevant Security Council resolutions on Counter-Terrorism, including the resolutions on the Sanctions concerning al-Qaeda and Taliban, with the full commitment to all measures and sanctions concerning any individual or entity associated with al-Qaeda and Taliban as determined by the Sanctions Committee.

The council pledges to help the United Nations and cooperate with it's counter-terrorism task forces.

Read the full statement here.

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HuffPost's Saki Knafo reports:

Earlier this week, rebel forces in Libya fought their way to the outskirts of Sirte, a seafront city about the size of Tallahassee. The day before, pushing westward along the coast from Ajdabiya, they'd recaptured the oil towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf -- Sirte, experts said, was the last major obstacle standing in the rebels' path to the capital city of Tripoli.

Sirte. Before Sunday, few outside Libya had heard of it. Now it's being portrayed as the key to Libya's hopes for democracy, the fulcrum on which the nation's fate would turn. Its importance can be explained partly by location, its proximity to the capital. But it mattered for other reasons, too, reasons that reveal a lot about a conflict with complexities outsiders are only beginning to grasp.

Read the full story here.

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According to The New York Times, U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague denies that Moussa Koussa was offered any immunity to lure him to leave Gaddafi's regime. Hague reports that he is voluntarily speaking with British officials.

The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said on March 3 that he would investigate “alleged crimes against humanity committed in Libya since 15 February, as peaceful demonstrators were attacked by security forces.” He placed Mr. Koussa second after Colonel Qaddafi on a list of “some individuals with formal or de facto authority, who commanded and had control over the forces that allegedly committed the crimes.”

More here.

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