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Updated: March 9, 2011 13:17 IST

Opposition's call for no-fly zone grows sharper

Atul Aneja
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Men who used to work in Libya but recently fled the unrest, carry their belongings as they arrive in a refugee camp after crossing from Libya at the Tunisia-Libyan border, in Ras Ajdir, Tunisia on Tuesday. Photo: AP
Men who used to work in Libya but recently fled the unrest, carry their belongings as they arrive in a refugee camp after crossing from Libya at the Tunisia-Libyan border, in Ras Ajdir, Tunisia on Tuesday. Photo: AP

Propaganda offensive on Qadhafi's offer to leave Libya

As gusts of cold wind, through windows, long shorn of glass, bring in sharp bursts of drizzle inside, the city courthouse, the epicentre of the Libyan revolt, is abuzz with a free-wheeling debate on opposition tactics to get rid of Libyan strongman, Muammar Qadhafi.

In a ground floor room, which serves as the opposition's makeshift office and reception, the mood was not particularly upbeat after Monday's events. Regime planes had bombed the oil town of Ras Lanuf, and two new strikes have been reported on Tuesday. Even defences, reinforced by raw volunteers and defectors from Mr. Qadhafi's army, were feeling the strain in the neighbouring oil hub of Brega. An eyewitness explained how he saw an airstrike kill a family of four, including two children travelling in a car in order to escape the fighting in Ras Lanuf.

Away from the battlefield, the regime and the opposition appeared engaged in mind-games. On Tuesday, spokesman Mustafa Gherian said a regime representative had contacted the opposition to negotiate Mr. Qadhafi's exit. “We rejected this. We are not negotiating with someone who spilled Libyan blood and continues to do so. Why we would trust the guy today,” he said. Libyan state-television later denied that such a contact had been made.

However, Al-Jazeera is reporting that the Libyan National Council may not pursue Mr. Qadhafi for crimes, if he decided to quit.

In an apparent propaganda counteroffensive, Mr. Qadhafi's son, Saadi has told Al Arabiya that the regime was exercising restraint so as not to provoke foreign governments from attacking “sensitive sites”. “The tribes are all armed, there are forces from the Libyan army and the eastern region is armed. The situation is not like Tunisia or Egypt,” he said.

In the courthouse room, lit by a single light bulb, opposition activists explain why it was urgent to impose a no-fly zone, enforced preferably by the United Nations Security Council.

“We do not need foreign troops. But Mr. Qaddafi's planes are impeding our advance from the east to the west. They must be stopped,” said Mohammad Ashur, an opposition supporter.

Activists pointed out that apart from killing civilians, the aerial bombardment was targeting opposition supply lines.

Many of the bombs were driving huge craters on roads, slowing down the movement of Toyota pick-up trucks, used for ferrying volunteers to the frontlines, many fitted with anti-aircraft guns.

Logistical lines

The opposition wanted to see the logistical lines clear, especially as it has been mounting an offensive at Sirte, Mr. Qadhafi's hometown, further to the West. On Tuesday, regime forces launched a counterattack to retard the opposition's advance towards Sirte, the strategically vital city, which is now the major impediment to the dissidents' advance towards Tripoli.

Many in the opposition are of the view that a no-fly zone will have a major psychological impact on the regime. In another room in the courthouse, where young men, huddle around a single Al Jazeera-tuned television set, an anti-regime supporter explained that the imposition of a no-fly zone will trigger more military defections from the Qadhafi camp.

“The bombardment of the government's air defences is likely to precede the enforcement of the no-fly zone. That will be a big psychological moment for many within regime circles would interpret it as a signal of the collapse of the regime,” said Karim, another opposition supporter.

Across the borders, the humanitarian disaster appeared never ending, evident from the emergence of a white tented city of refugees, mainly migrant workers, across the Libyan border in Tunisia. In filthy and overcrowded halls, at the Egyptian border crossing of Saloum, hundreds of helpless Bangladeshi workers can be seen huddled under blankets, awaiting help from somewhere to take them home.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 215,000 people have fled the country so far.

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