Gaddafi’s forces enter Benghazi as U.S., allies prepare military action against Libya
TRIPOLI, LIBYA — Forces loyal to Moammar Gaddafi entered the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi Saturday after air strikes and fierce fighting, a fresh act of defiance even as the United States and its allies prepared to launch military attacks on Libya.
A warplane was shot down over Benghazi. Government troops — some reportedly in tanks -- entered Benghazi from the west, in the university area. The city of 1 million quickly became a ghost town, with residents fleeing or seeking cover in barricaded neighborhoods. A Washington Post reporter saw the aircraft go down in flames. It was not known who shot it down.
On Friday, President Obama warned that the Libyan leader faced imminent military action unless his troops were withdrawn from all disputed cities in the country. But the besieged town of Misurata, 130 miles east of Tripoli, was still coming under heavy artillery fire, residents said, and there were also reports of continued fighting around Ajdabiya, even farther to the east. The assaults on rebel-held towns took place despite government promises of a cease-fire.
The conditions set by Obama were more specific than those contained in a resolution approved a day earlier by the U.N. Security Council, suggesting that the United States and its allies are in no mood to countenance delays by a Libyan regime whose forces have recaptured large swaths of territory from rebels in recent days.
U.S. ships in the Mediterranean were preparing to bombard Libya’s air defenses and runways to clear the way for European and Arab forces to establish a no-fly zone throughout the country, according to U.S. and European officials. Fighter aircraft from France, Britain and the United Arab Emirates converged on bases in and around Italy to begin operations over Libya under the command and control of the United States at its naval base in Naples.
The military preparations came on a day of bloodshed across the Arab world, as governments appear increasingly willing to use arms to suppress the dissent that has mushroomed since the success of popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt earlier in the year. In Yemen, 47 people died when security forces opened fire on protesters in the capital, Sanaa, and at least five people were reportedly killed during a government crackdown on unrest in Syria, a strategically vital country that has been ruled with an iron fist by the Assad family for the past four decades.
In an address at the White House, Obama spelled out conditions that Gaddafi would have to fulfill if his country is to avoid military intervention under the provisions of a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted Thursday that authorizes the use of force to stop the violence.
“These terms are not negotiable,” Obama said. “If Gaddafi does not comply with the resolution, the international community will impose consequences and the resolution will be enforced through military action.”
Obama said that in addition to halting their advance on Ben ghazi, the last remaining rebel stronghold in the east of the country, Libyan troops would have to pull back from the towns of Ajdabiya, Misurata and Zawiyah. He also demanded that Libya establish water, electricity and gas supplies to all areas.
A doctor at the hospital in Misurata said 16 civilians and 25 rebels had been killed in a government assault Friday, at least a dozen of them after the cease-fire supposedly went into effect. In Benghazi, a rebel spokesman said two people had been killed in Ajdabiya in attacks after the cease-fire was announced.
“Until this moment, they have not stopped attacking us. There will be no negotiations,” Khaled al-Sayeh told reporters Friday night. “The attacks are still happening at this moment.”
He said attacks were also taking place in the towns of Zintan and Zuwaytinah well after the cease-fire was announced.
In the area around Zuwaytinah, more than 90 miles south of Benghazi, jets streaked across the sky firing at targets, at least one helicopter flew low across the desert, and artillery bombardment could be heard for several hours Friday afternoon.
A tentative deadline for Gaddafi’s full compliance was set at midday Saturday after a meeting in Paris of U.S., European and Arab governments. U.S. and European officials said the British, French and UAE jets, initially flying from a French base on the island of Corsica, could move earlier if Gaddafi continued offensive operations overnight.
It appeared clear that the Libyan government had been caught off-guard by the speed with which the Security Council moved to authorize the use of force, after weeks of indecision during which pro-Gaddafi forces made significant advances.
Libya’s deputy foreign minister, Khaled Kaim, denied that there had been any violations of the cease-fire since it was announced in the early afternoon. He called on observers from four countries — Malta, China, Germany and Turkey — to send a fact-finding team to Libya to verify that the cease-fire is being observed.
U.S. officials expressed skepticism.
“We are not going to be responsive and impressed by words,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters in Washington. “We would have to see action on the ground, and that is not yet at all clear.”
She added that “the final result of any negotiations would have to be the decision by Colonel Gaddafi to leave. But let’s take this one step at a time.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron also said he was unconvinced by the cease-fire announcement, telling members of Parliament that Britain was already preparing to deploy fighter jets and other air support to the region.
“Our forces will join an international operation to enforce the resolution if Gaddafi fails to comply with its demand that he ends attacks on civilians,” he said.
A U.S. official with access to classified intelligence on Libya said the CIA and other American spy agencies monitoring Libya had seen evidence of continued fighting, from satellites and from sources inside the country.
“There are reports out of certain areas that fighting continues,” said the official, citing Misurata. The cease-fire “should be considered tenuous at best right now,” the U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence information.