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Articles / Humanity

By Maria Golovnina

TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI | Thu Mar 17, 2011 10:27am EDT

(Reuters) - Libyan troops pushed forward toward the insurgent stronghold of Benghazi on Thursday and launched air raids on its outskirts as Washington raised the possibility of air strikes to stop Muammar Gaddafi's forces.

But the international debate on what action to take may have dragged on too long to help the anti-Gaddafi uprising, now struggling to hold its ground one month after it started.

Libyan state television said government troops had taken Zueitina, an oil port on the coastal highway 130 km (80 miles) from Benghazi, but the rebels said they had surrounded the pro-Gaddafi units on the approaches to the town.

Similarly, a rebel spokesman denied a state television report that government troops were on the outskirts of Benghazi itself, the city where the revolution started.

However, residents of the city and a rebel spokesman reported air strikes on the outskirts, including at the airport. Libyan state television had said earlier that gunfire and explosions could be heard at the airport.

Clashes around Ajdabiyah, a strategic town on the coast road, killed around 30 people, Al Arabiya television reported.

On the approaches to Ajdabiyah, burned-out cars lay by the roadside while Libyan government forces showed the foreign media artillery, tanks and mobile rocket launchers -- much heavier weapons than those used by the rebels.

In Libya's third city, Misrata, about 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli, rebels and residents said they were preparing for a new attack by Libyan troops, who had shelled the coastal city overnight. A government spokesman said Gaddafi's forces expected to be in control of Misrata by Friday morning.

The United States, previously cool on the idea of a foreign military intervention, said the U.N. Security Council should consider tougher action than a no-fly zone over Libya.

"We are discussing very seriously and leading efforts in the Council around a range of actions that we believe could be effective in protecting civilians," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said in New York late on Wednesday.

"The U.S. view is that we need to be prepared to contemplate steps that include, but perhaps go beyond, a no-fly zone."

Washington had initially reacted cautiously to Arab League and European calls for a no-fly zone over Libya, with some officials concerned it could be militarily ineffective or politically damaging.

Diplomats at the United Nations told Reuters that the United States, Britain and France now supported the idea of the council authorizing military action such as air strikes to protect civilian areas.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she hoped the Security Council would vote "no later than Thursday."

She said Gaddafi seemed determined to kill as many as Libyans as possible, and that "many different actions" were being considered.

Russia, China, Germany, India and other council members are either undecided or have voiced doubts about the proposal for a no-fly zone. Italy, a potential base for military action, ruled out military intervention in the oil-exporting country.

A U.S. official said he could not confirm any discussion of a plan to attack Libyan forces. In theory, he said, military action could be directed not only at Gaddafi's air force, but at artillery and communications systems too.

The U.S. change appeared to be driven by the worsening plight of the rebels, who are fighting to end 41 years of rule by Gaddafi and have set up a provisional national council in Benghazi.

Their ill-equipped forces have been routed by troops backed by tanks, artillery and war planes from towns they had seized in the early days of the uprising.

ARMY ADVANCES

Gaddafi, in an interview with the French daily Le Figaro, said his troops' aim was to liberate the people from "the armed gangs" that occupy Benghazi.

"If we used force, it would take just a day. But our aim is to progressively dismantle the armed groups, through various means, such as encircling cities or sending negotiators."

Asked if dialogue with the rebels was possible, he repeated his assertion that they were linked to the al Qaeda Islamic militant group.

"These are not people with whom we aim to talk, as al Qaeda does not talk with anybody."

On the fate of the rebel leadership, he said: "It is quite possible they will flee. Anyway, it's not really a structure. It has no value."

A statement on Al-Libya state television told people in Benghazi that the army was on its way.

"It urges you to keep out by midnight of areas where the armed men and weapon storage areas are located," it said.

One civilian reached by phone from Tobruk, Hisham Mohammed, said: "People are okay here. There is a bit of tension, a little fear of air strikes, but most people are fine."

Two aid agencies -- the International Committee of the Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres -- have withdrawn their workers from Benghazi due to safety concerns.

BENGHAZI AND TOBRUK ROADS

The exact state of affairs in Ajdabiyah, 150 km (90 miles) south of Benghazi on the Gulf of Sirte, was unclear on Thursday morning. Parts of it appeared to have changed hands several times in the past 48 hours, a recurring feature of the war for control of the towns strung along the North African coast.

Osama Jazwi, a Benghazi doctor, said that when he left Ajdabiyah late on Wednesday, rebels had controlled the city and fighting was still going on.

At one point, Gaddafi's forces had cut the road from Adjabiyah to Tobruk, but then rebels cleared them from it.

But another civilian in Benghazi, who asked not to be named, said Ajdabiyah had fallen.

"I know people there. There are many people leaving Ajdabiyah, coming through Benghazi and heading for the border."

(Additional reporting by a Reuters reporter in Benghazi, Michael Georgy in Tripoli, Mariam Karouny and Tarek Amara in Tunisia, Louis Charbonneau and Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations; Editing by Giles Elgood and Kevin Liffey)

Source: Reuters
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