< Back to News

Libya Rebels Dig In After Qaddafi Attacks as UN Rebukes Regime

Libyan rebels dug in for battle after repulsing attacks by forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi that fueled talk of a civil war, as the full membership of the United Nations rebuked the regime.

Rebels in Zawiyah, a rebel outpost 28 miles (45 kilometers) west of Tripoli, the capital, held their ground yesterday at the entrances to the city, Ibrahim al-Hajj, a 58-year-old resident, said by telephone. Many were armed with machine guns and rocket- propelled grenades taken from Libyan military depots, said Belgassem al-Zawee, a 50-year-old protester in the city.

Forces loyal to Qaddafi had taken control of Libya’s western border with Tunisia Feb. 28 before attacking and failing to recapture Zawiyah. They also attacked Misratah, a city 115 miles east of the capital, according to the Associated Press.

“Libya is essentially split into two, an eastern and a western part,” Mohammed Dangor, South Africa’s ambassador to Libya, who left Tripoli on Feb. 27, told reporters in Cape Town. “This is moving toward civil war, that’s the danger.”

Saudi Arabia’s benchmark stock index plunged the most since November 2008 on concern political unrest in the Middle East may spread to the kingdom. Oil rose to its highest level since September 2008.

Elsewhere in the region, Oman deployed armored vehicles in the center of the city of Sohar after protests late Feb. 28, while Yemeni demonstrators again took to the streets of Sanaa, the capital, yesterday to demand the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Iran Clashes

Iranian protesters clashed with security forces in Tehran, Al Arabiya television reported. Iran’s Foreign Ministry said the protests are “internal affairs,” without commenting on the opposition statements that authorities have detained the main opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi.

Qaddafi’s actions to try to crush Libya’s opposition, in contrast to the largely peaceful democratic protests in neighboring Egypt, led the 192-member UN General Assembly to suspend Libya from the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council. The UN action, taken by consensus, was the first suspension of a council member.

“This is a harsh rebuke, but one that Libya’s leaders have brought down upon themselves,” U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said. “This unprecedented action sends another clear warning to Mr. Qaddafi and those who still stand by him: They must stop killing.”

Death Toll

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said that more than 1,000 Libyans have died in the protests against Qaddafi and that his regime is guilty of “serious transgressions” of international human rights and humanitarian law.

“I am gravely concerned at the continuing loss of life, the ongoing repression of the people and the clear incitement of violence against the civilian population,” he said.

In Zawiyah, some army brigades defected to the rebels, according to al-Hajj. “The Libyan army is the army of the people, not the army of the dictator,” he said. “We hope that the brigades that are still hesitating would side with the people and spare the bloodshed.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned yesterday that Libya could have a peaceful, democratic outcome or “could face protracted civil war, or it could descend into chaos.” Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, she said that a “strong and strategic American response is essential.”

No-Fly Zone

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said discussions are continuing with NATO allies about establishing a no-fly zone over Libya as well as conducting humanitarian operations. He said two U.S. Navy ships and 400 Marines are en route to the Mediterranean, while President Obama considers the “full range of options” during the crisis.

Rebel leaders are discussing among themselves whether to request Western air strikes to help defeat Qaddafi, the New York Times reported, citing four unnamed people familiar with the discussions.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron promised not to abandon Libyan opposition groups in the face of attacks by Qaddafi’s forces, stopping short of saying Britain will provide arms for the rebels. Cameron said the Libyan people must not be left to their fate, as were Kurdish rebels after the Gulf War in 1991 when they rose up against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime with the expectation of U.S. support that never materialized.

“We mustn’t let that happen in Libya,” Cameron told reporters in London yesterday.

Refugee Crisis

The European Union Feb. 28 imposed an arms embargo and other sanctions, and the U.S. said it has frozen $30 billion in Libyan assets. The U.S. said refugee-assistance teams were sent to the country’s borders with Egypt and Tunisia, and that $10 million has been allocated for aid.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said yesterday that more than 150,000 people have fled Libya to neighboring Egypt and Tunisia since Feb. 19. Many were workers from third countries. As many as 15,000 people were expected to cross yesterday into Tunisia, following 14,000 on Feb. 28, the UNHCR said in a press release.

“The area has reached absolute saturation,” Sybella Wilkes, a UNHCR spokeswoman, said yesterday by telephone. “It is absolutely packed with people. The sanitary conditions are very poor.”

Oil Markets

Oil surged to the highest level since September 2008 as Middle East turmoil threatened to spread from Libya to top OPEC producers Saudi Arabia and Iran. Crude jumped 2.7 percent as Libyan rebels braced for renewed clashes with Qaddafi’s forces.

Opposition groups control much of the oil industry territory in east Libya. International oil companies have begun talking to rebel leaders in a bid to gain security for their operations, the Financial Times reported, citing executives the newspaper said it couldn’t identify because of safety concerns.

Oil for April delivery rose $2.66 to $99.63 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the highest settlement since Sept. 30, 2008. Prices jumped 5.2 percent in February and have risen 27 percent in the past year. Oil touched $100.68 a barrel at 4:11 p.m. in electronic trading after the settlement.

“All over the region, things are keeping the market very nervous,” said Phil Flynn, vice president of research at PFGBest in Chicago. “Right now in this Middle East situation there’s no real end in sight.” Ni Libya

Fitch Ratings said it downgraded Libya’s long-term foreign and local currency issuer default ratings to BB, or below investment grade, from BBB. The ratings remain on rating watch negative, Fitch said, which means further downgrades may occur.

Saudi Markets

Saudi Arabia’s Tadawul All Share Index dropped 6.8 percent, the biggest slump since November 2008, to close at 5,538.72 at 3:30 p.m. in Riyadh. The measure fell for a 12th day, its longest losing streak since 1998, and has entered a bear market after dropping 20 percent from the high in 2010.

The UN Security Council voted 15-0 on Feb. 26 to freeze the foreign assets of Qaddafi and four aides and to bar them from traveling. The resolution also imposes an arms embargo on Libya and calls for an immediate end to violence that it says “may amount to crimes against humanity.”

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon that establishing a no-fly zone over Libya would be “an extraordinarily complex operation.”

A no-fly zone over Libya “would be a military operation” involving more than simply “telling people not to fly airplanes,” the top U.S. commander in the Middle East said yesterday.

Mandate Required

A U.S.-led no-fly zone over Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War required bombing the air-defense systems to preclude attacks on coalition warplanes. The same concern holds true for Libya, said Marine Corps General James Mattis, whose command area doesn’t include Libya but does include other parts of the region in turmoil.

“You would have to remove the air defense capability in order to establish the no-fly zone,” said told the Senate Armed Services Committee during testimony yesterday.

A United Nations mandate would be required for any Western military operation in Libya, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said during a parliamentary debate yesterday.

In Oman, two demonstrators were killed Feb. 27 and several were wounded in clashes with security forces in the city of Sohar. In Tunisia, where the regional turmoil began two months ago, protests have flared up again, forcing interim Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi to resign after at least three people were killed.

‘Day of Rage’

Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Yemen’s capital, Sana‘a, for a “Day of Rage,” voicing anger over the deaths of demonstrators in the port city of Aden.

In Bahrain, where the minority Sunni monarchy is being challenged by predominately Shiite protesters, the government denied rumors that neighboring Saudi Arabia had sent tanks to reinforce Bahrain’s armed forces.

“Tanks identified on Monday evening were Bahraini tanks returning from Kuwait National Day celebrations, where military from several Allied countries participated in an event commemorating Kuwait’s liberation in 1991,” the country’s Information Affairs Authority said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.