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Libya Rebels Flee Gaddafi's Assault

Libya

First Posted: 03/30/11 12:53 AM ET Updated: 05/29/11 06:12 AM ET

RAS LANOUF, Libya (AP) -- Muammar Gaddafi's forces hammered rebels with tanks and rockets, turning their rapid advance into a panicked retreat in an hourslong battle Tuesday. The fighting underscored the dilemma facing the U.S. and its allies in Libya: Rebels may be unable to oust Gaddafi militarily unless already contentious international airstrikes go even further in taking out his forces.

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Opposition fighters pleaded for strikes as they fled the hamlet of Bin Jawwad, where artillery shells crashed thunderously, raising plumes of smoke. No such strikes were launched during the fighting, and some rebels shouted, "Sarkozy, where are you?" – a reference to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, one of the strongest supporters of using air power against Gaddafi.

Reports overnight indicated that the rebels were in flight from Brega and Ras Lanouf.

World leaders meeting in London agreed that Gaddafi should step down but have yet to decide what additional pressure to put on him.

"Gaddafi has lost the legitimacy to lead, so we believe he must go. We're working with the international community to try to achieve that outcome," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters after the talks concluded.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said it "has to be made very clear to Gaddafi: His time is over." But Germany and other countries have expressed reservations about the current military intervention in Libya, let alone expanding it.

France has struck a more forceful tone. Defense Minister Gerard Longuet told France-Inter radio that Paris and London believe that the campaign "must obtain more" than the end of shooting at civilians.

The rout of the rebels Tuesday illustrated how much they rely on international air power. Only a day earlier, they had been storming westward in hopes of taking Sirte, Gaddafi's hometown and a bastion of his support in central Libya. They reached within 60 miles (100 kilometers) of the city before they were hit by the onslaught from Gaddafi's forces, driving them back east to Bin Jawwad under barrages of rocket and tank fire.

Many of the ragtag, untrained volunteers who make up the bulk of the rebel forces fled in a panicked scramble. However, some of them backed by special forces soldiers from military units that joined the rebellion took a stand in Bin Jawwad, bringing up truck-mounted rocket launchers of their own and returning fire.

The two sides traded salvos for hours, drilling Bin Jawwad's buildings with shrapnel and bullet holes. The steady drum of heavy machine gun fire and the pop of small arms could be heard above the din as people less than a mile (a kilometer) outside the village scaled mounds of dirt to watch the fighting.

But by the afternoon, rebels fled further east, their cars and trucks filling both lanes of the desert highway as they retreated to and even beyond the oil port of Ras Lanouf, roughly 25 miles (40 kilometers) away. Some loyalist forces had reached the outskirts of Ras Lanouf, where the thud of heavy weapons was heard and black smoke rose from buildings.

"If they keep shelling like this, we'll need airstrikes," said Mohammed Bujildein, a 27-year-old rebel fighter. He was gnawing on a loaf of bread in a pickup truck with a mounted anti-aircraft gun, waiting to fill up from an abandoned gas tanker truck on the eastern side of Ras Lanouf.

With international strikes, he boasted, "we'll be in Sirte tomorrow evening."

"This today is a loss, but hopefully we'll get it back," he said.

It was the second time in weeks that rebel forces have been driven back from an attempted assault on Sirte. The last time, early in the month, it nearly meant the end of their movement: They retreated hundreds of miles (kilometers) west and Gaddafi forces nearly stormed their capital, Benghazi, until the U.S. and European strikes began 10 days ago, driving Gaddafi's forces back from bloody sieges.

Even proponents of the international campaign have been wary of going further by effectively providing air cover for rebels who are now trying to go on the offensive and march through Gaddafi-controlled territory to the Libyan capital, Tripoli, to end his more than 41 years in power.

With the possibility of a prolonged military deadlock looming, 40 foreign ministers, Clinton, the heads of NATO and the U.N. and representatives from the Arab League met in London to decide how to help Libya into a post-Gaddafi future.

British Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged that "the Libyan people cannot reach that future on their own. ... We are all here in one united purpose, that is to help the Libyan people in their hour of need."

Clinton said the international community must support calls for democracy sweeping Libya and its neighbors, but warned that "these goals are not easily achieved." U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said there are plenty of "non-military means at our disposal" to oust the Libyan leader.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini pushed a plan for a cease-fire, exile for Gaddafi and a framework for talks on Libya's future between tribal leaders and opposition figures. He said negotiations on securing his exit were being conducted with "absolute discretion," though he said there could be no promise of immunity for Gaddafi from international prosecution. So far, Gaddafi has shown little sign he might choose exile, vowing to fight to the end.

Cameron and Sarkozy urged Gaddafi loyalists to seize a final chance to abandon him and side with those seeking political reform – effectively pinning hopes on a palace coup.

As for the possibility of giving arms to the heavily outgunned rebels, Clinton said the U.S. has made no decision, and British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the subject simply did not come up at Tuesday's meeting.

Representatives of the opposition's political leadership, the Interim National Council, met Tuesday with Clinton and Hague but did not attend the main conference.

Mahmoud Shammam, a council spokesman, suggested Libyans were prepared to fight their own battle. Though the international community had a responsibility to prevent "mass genocide," he told reporters, "We are not asking for any non-Libyan to come and change the regime."

"The aspirations of the Libyan people are to be free, to live under a constitutional democratic system," Shammam said. "(We have) had enough of tyranny."

A senior Obama administration official said the U.S. would soon send an envoy to Libya to meet with rebel leaders.

Chris Stevens, former U.S. envoy to Tripoli, will travel to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in the coming days to establish better ties with groups seeking to oust the longtime Libyan leader. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning, stressed that the move doesn't constitute formal recognition of the opposition.

The international operation has decimated loyalist forces, which would risk more airstrikes if they attempted the kind of powerful counterattack they launched last month. The rebel forces, meanwhile, showed signs of being more organized despite Tuesday's losses, more effectively deploying their heavy weapons at the front.

In the more densely inhabited western half of the country, Gaddafi has largely crushed the rebellion in Tripoli and in several towns that rose up against his rule since the turmoil began Feb. 15. Other towns and cities in the west never saw an effective anti-Gaddafi uprising, suggesting his popular support there is stronger, or that tribes in those areas chose to stay neutral to see who wins the conflict.

Regime forces continued to besiege the last significant rebel holdout in the west, Libya's third-largest city, Misrata. From Misrata's outskirts, the troops pounded streets and the city's port, residents said. At least three people were killed in shelling Monday, a doctor in the city said.

The U.S. Navy reported that two of its aircraft and a guided missile destroyer attacked a number of Libyan coast guard vessels, rendering them inoperable, in the port of Misrata. It said the Libyan vessels had been "firing indiscriminately" at merchant ships. U.S. ships and submarines also unleashed 22 cruise missiles late Monday and early Tuesday at Libyan missile storage facilities in the Tripoli area. New explosions were heard in Tripoli on Tuesday night in a sign of a new barrage.

Libyan state TV reported strikes in Tripoli by "the Crusader colonial aggression" and said that "the cost of each rocket and bomb is paid for by Qatar and the Emirates" – a dig at the two Arab nations that have joined the international campaign.

In Benghazi, opposition spokeswoman Iman Bughaigis contended that the international bombardment had left Gaddafi's troops "in very bad morale and many of his defectors are leaving him."

"We understand that it is our fight," she said. The international campaign provides "a safe haven ... but to liberate our country, this is our duty and we hope to do that."

In an open letter to the international community, meanwhile, Gaddafi called for a halt to the "monstrous assault" on Libya and maintained that that the rebels were supported by the al-Qaida terrorist network, a claim the opposition denies.

"What is happening now is providing a cover for al-Qaida through airstrikes and missiles to enable al-Qaida to control North Africa and turn it into a new Afghanistan," he said.

____

Associated Press writers Ben Hubbard in Benghazi, Hadeel al-Shalchi in Tripoli, Bradley Klapper in London and Angela Charlton in Paris 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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Filed by Adam Goldberg  |