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Rebels Weather Qaddafi’s Bombs, Seek Foreign Airstrikes

Muammar Qaddafi’s warplanes bombed rebels as his ground forces fought unsuccessfully for a main Libyan oil port and opposition leaders appealed for foreign nations to launch airstrikes against regime mercenaries.

Rebels regained control of an oil facility in Brega, on the Gulf of Sidra yesterday, driving back government forces, according to a local oil official. Qaddafi’s warplanes also bombed an area near Ajdabiya, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) northeast of Brega, where rebels took over a military camp, a witness said. Oil prices climbed to a 29-month high, and the Saudi Arabia main stock index continued its decline on worries about regional turmoil.

Qaddafi’s airstrikes may raise the stakes for the U.S. and European allies discussing whether to forcibly ground Libya’s air force. U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague discussed the military situation by telephone with an anti-Qaddafi commander, who asked about planning for a no-fly zone, according to a statement from Hague’s office.

U.S. officials, such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have emphasized the complexity of a no-fly zone and the lack of consensus among NATO allies. It would be a “big operation” that “would begin with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses,” he told a House appropriations subcommittee yesterday. “That’s the way you do a no-fly zone.”

‘Thousands Would Die’  

In Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, a self-declared interim governing council called on foreign nations to carry out airstrikes on what they said were non-Libyan African mercenaries fighting for Qaddafi, according to the Associated Press.

Qaddafi, speaking on state television, warned that “thousands would die” in a NATO or U.S. attack. He said his loyalists have surrounded opposition forces, though they aren’t firing on them. Rebel leaders may be allowed to escape to Egypt or Tunisia while their young supporters who were ‘misled’’ will be pardoned, he said.

Qaddafi said his government retains control of oil fields though output has fallen to “the lowest level” after workers fled. As much as 1 million barrels a day of Libyan output has been shut in, the International Energy Agency said yesterday. Total SA (FP) said output at its Mabruk onshore field in Libya is likely to halt, though output at the offshore al-Jurf field continues.

Crude oil for April delivery rose $2.60 to $102.23 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the highest settlement since Sept. 26, 2008. Futures are up 28 percent from a year ago.

‘Risk Premium’  

“As long as the revolt continues, you are going to see a substantial risk premium in the oil price,” said Gene McGillian, an analyst and broker at Tradition Energy in Stamford, Connecticut.

Saudi Arabia’s main stock index fell 3.9 percent, taking its loss this week to 15 percent, and the Bloomberg GCC200 regional benchmark fell 3.3 percent. Dubai’s index dropped to the lowest in almost seven years.

Fighting over Brega began in the early hours yesterday, and CNN documented one of the bombing runs on video. Rebel forces regained control of the town’s oil facility, Ahmed Jerksi, a manager at the chairman’s office of Sirte Oil Co., said by phone from Benghazi. Doctors at Brega hospital said at least 10 opposition fighters were killed and 18 others wounded, according to AP.

Brega Refinery
The refinery at Brega has an effective capacity of about 8,400 barrels per day, and the town also has a gas liquefaction plant with an effective capacity of 2.5 million cubic meters a day and an export terminal for crude oil and refined products, according to the Arab Oil and Gas Directory for 2006.

Northeast of Brega, fighter jets bombed an area near Ajdabiya, said Irham Ali, an electrical engineer at a project based 27 kilometers from the town. Ali said he heard the sound of bombing at dawn and again at 11 a.m., coming from the area where rebels had taken control of a military camp.

“We heard the sound of aircraft flying over and then a loud sound of an explosion,” he said by phone yesterday. “We went outside to see what’s going on but there was dust and wind, so we couldn’t really see anything.”

Al Arabiya television reported that 16 people were killed in Ajdabiya.

Western powers are debating how to stop the violence as two U.S. Navy warships head toward Libya for possible humanitarian operations. There are 800 Marines aboard the ships, and 400 more are being sent to join them, according to Marine 1st Lieutenant Josh Diddams, a spokesman for the Marine Corps at the Pentagon.

Shores of Tripoli

U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead said the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge and amphibious transport ship USS Ponce were transiting the Suez Canal and should arrive in position near Libya for humanitarian operations within a day or two.

Roughead said the ships are carrying food, water and other supplies for humanitarian relief. He also said the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in Norfolk, Virginia, is preparing for a scheduled deployment to the Middle East region. The Navy currently has two aircraft carriers in the region, the USS Enterprise and the USS Carl Vinson.

Gates said March 1 that discussions about a no-fly zone over Libya, to prevent Qaddafi forces from carrying out airstrikes against the rebels, are continuing within NATO. He said there is “no unanimity” within the alliance about the use of force.

‘All Eventualities’  

Hague spoke with Gen. Abdul Fattah Younis, former interior minister and head of Qaddafi’s special forces who resigned Feb. 23 to join the opposition in Benghazi, about the military situation and provision of humanitarian assistance, according to Hague’s office. Hague told him that the U.K. is working on contingency planning “for all eventualities, including a no-fly zone.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said yesterday that military action against Libya is “not appropriate” at this time, as he repeated his call for Qaddafi to step down.

The Arab League said it may support and work with the African Union to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya if fighting continues.

“The Arab countries cannot stand with their hands tied regarding the bloodshed that the brotherly Libyan people are being subjected to,” the group said in a statement yesterday in Cairo after a meeting of Arab foreign ministers.

The ministers condemned the “crimes” against Libyan protesters and urged authorities to secure the delivery of aid and medical supplies to those wounded in the uprising.

China, Russia Resist

China joined Russia yesterday in signaling likely opposition to action by the UN Security Council to authorize a no-fly zone.

Nouri el-Mismari, Qaddafi’s former protocol chief who left the country in November, argued against foreign military intervention and predicted a drawn-out conflict.

“Bombings would kill lots of innocent people, and foreign troops wouldn’t be accepted,” el-Mismari said at a press conference in Paris. Qaddafi will fight to the end because his supporters “still think they will win” and also “have committed lots of crimes that won’t be forgiven,” he said.

In the west of the country, rebels in Zawiyah, 28 miles west of Tripoli, held the city March 1 after an attack by pro- Qaddafi forces who also targeted Misrata, 115 miles east of the capital. Loyalists reclaimed control of Libya’s western border with Tunisia on Feb. 28.

The International Criminal Court in The Hague said yesterday it concluded a preliminary investigation into possible crimes in Libya during the uprising, and will announce the names of suspects today.

Refugee Crisis  

More than 150,000 people have fled Libya to neighboring Egypt and Tunisia since Feb. 19, the UN refugee agency said March 1. China has evacuated more than 35,000 nationals, Xinhua news agency said. Thousands of foreign workers are stranded in Benghazi and on the Tunisian border, New York-based Human Rights Watch said yesterday, adding that “evacuation efforts have not adequately included the plight of African workers.”

World Food Program Director Josette Sheeran said she saw tens of thousands of Libyans fleeing the country and massing on the border with Tunisia, according to a statement e-mailed by the agency yesterday that called for “increased humanitarian action to prevent a disaster inside Libya.” The WFP is launching a $38.7 million emergency operation to provide food assistance to 2.7 million people in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, she said.

The Libyan revolt follows the ousting of longtime rulers by protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt in the past two months. Anti-government demonstrations have also erupted in Yemen, Bahrain, Oman, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Iran and Iraq.

Governments throughout the region, including the royal family in Saudi Arabia, holder of the world’s biggest oil reserves, have announced increased spending on social programs, such as food and energy subsidies and job creation plans, to assuage the unrest. The protesters are demanding moves toward democracy as well as higher living standards.