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Updated: March 29, 2011 03:20 IST

Libyan rebels close in on key Qadhafi stronghold

Atul Aneja
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Libyan rebels gesture as they pass the oil refinery in the outskirts of Ras Lanouf, eastern Libya, on Sunday.
AP Libyan rebels gesture as they pass the oil refinery in the outskirts of Ras Lanouf, eastern Libya, on Sunday.

After taking over the coastal oil towns in the east, Libyan opposition forces are at the doorsteps of the Qadhafi-stronghold of Sirte, a formidable barrier that can stall their rapid advance towards the capital, Tripoli.

On Monday, an official from the Benghazi-based Transitional National Council prematurely announced that rebel fighters had moved into Sirte, the hometown of Libyan strongman Mummar Qadhafi. But Al Jazeera is reporting the frontline is at Nawfaliya, 180 km east of Sirte. From there, the advance is not easy as pro-Qadhafi forces have extensively mined one of the leading roads. They have also been heavily shelling the advancing opposition fighters from well dug-in positions.

News flowing in driblets from Sirte suggest no fighting is taking place in the city. However, families in cars have joined columns of vehicles, including truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, heading in the direction of Tripoli. The scale of the movement is significant, since an exodus could suggest that instead of Sirte, Mr. Qadhafi's forces might be planning their last stand at Tripoli.

An opposition commander, General Hamdi Hassi, said it would not be easy to take Sirte, where most people are from Mr. Qadhafi's Gaddafa tribe.

The New York Times is quoting General Carter F. Ham, a senior official involved in operations, as saying air strikes have prevented pro-Qadhafi forces from reversing the opposition's advance. “The regime possesses the capability to roll them back very quickly. Coalition air power is the major reason that has not happened,” said General Ham. He added the Qadhafi regime “still vastly overmatches opposition forces militarily”.

As Sirte comes into focus, it is unclear whether Western forces will carry on bombing the city's defences since the threat to civilian lives, the precondition under the U.N. mandate for launching air strikes, might not enter the equation. However, Western forces carried out heavy aerial bombardment over Sirte overnight.

Responding to the high-intensity of air strikes, Moussa Ibrahim, the government spokesman in Tripoli, said Western air power was being used against retreating Libyan troops — a tactic which in no way complied with the U.N. mandate of enforcing a no-fly-zone to protect civilians.

“Clearly NATO is taking sides in this civil conflict. It is illegal. It is not allowed by the Security Council resolution. And it is immoral, of course,” said Mr. Ibrahim.

Streamlining the command of air operations after days of bickering, NATO, the 28-nation Western military alliance, has taken complete charge of combat in Libya. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said General Charles Bouchard from Canada would be in charge of operations.

Before approaching Sirte, opposition forces had swept through Ajdabiyah and the oil towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf. On Sunday evening, heavy fighting re-commenced in Misurata, a major Libyan city wedged between Sirte and Tripoli, 320 km further to the west. In a bid to undermine the regime's access to weapons, Western air strikes set ablaze a major ammunition depot around the city.

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