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Updated: March 29, 2011 23:29 IST

Opposition beaten back from Sirte

Atul Aneja
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Injured Libyan rebels arrive at a hospital after clashes with pro-Qadhafi forces in Ras Lanouf , Libya, on Tuesday. Photo: AP.
Injured Libyan rebels arrive at a hospital after clashes with pro-Qadhafi forces in Ras Lanouf , Libya, on Tuesday. Photo: AP.

Opposition forces have beaten a deep and hasty retreat after being confronted with heavy shelling from pro-Qadhafi forces guarding the regime's stronghold of Sirte.

On Tuesday, the frontline once again shifted eastward, in the direction of Ras Lanuf, after forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi rained tank shells, artillery rounds and rocket fire on the opposition militia. Once again, the anti-Qadhafi forces demonstrated they are unprepared to engage in pitched battles with their foes, armed with superior weaponry.

Anti-Qadhafi forces on Tuesday retreated beyond Bin Jawad, 150 km east of Sirte. The reversal in the opposition's fortunes was as dramatic as its earlier advance, when its forces swiftly took over Ajdabiyah and the coastal oil towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf before arriving at the gates of Sirte, where pro-Qadhafi forces appeared to have retreated to.

Analysts said the show of strength on Tuesday reveal pro-Qadhafi troops loyal to Libyan strongman Muammar Qadhafi are likely to dig in deep to defend Sirte.

The crucial difference between the opposition's advance and its retreat is the role of Western air power. While U.N.-authorised air strikes had destroyed the regime's heavy weaponry around Ajdabiyah and the oil towns, it was absent on Tuesday, when civilian lives were not on line.

Observers say that on Monday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was announced air support would be provided only when civilian lives were under threat.

Rejecting the notion that Western forces were enforcing the no-fly zone according to the rule book, Libya's Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said at a Tripoli press conference that “the objective of the coalition now… is not to protect civilians because now they are directly fighting against the armed forces”. Witnesses said in Sirte, which could define the de facto borderline between the two adversarial camps, Mr. Qadhafi's forces were arming themselves with light weapons to evade possible air strikes.

Reinforcing diplomatic support to the opposition, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and William Hague, her counterpart and host at a London conference, met with, Mahmoud Jibril, a senior member of the Benghazi-based Libyan National Council (LNC). A senior American diplomat will now visit Benghazi, the de facto opposition capital, to establish better ties with the anti-Qadhafi camp.

Free elections

Ahead of the London meeting, the LNC released a document in which it pledged to hold free elections to pave the way for democracy in a post-Qadhafi scenario.

On Tuesday, Qatar became the first Arab country to recognise the LNC as the representative of the country, the Financial Times reported. Qatar also agreed to sell on Libya's behalf, Libyan oil in the international market. The opposition has said it would increase oil production, which has reduced after the conflict began.

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