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Rebels advance on eve of Libya crisis talks

world Updated: Mar 28, 2011 21:40 IST

Reuters
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Rebels advanced towards the birthplace of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on Monday, streaming west along the main coastal road in pick-up trucks mounted with machineguns.

Russia criticised the Western-led air strikes that have turned the tide of Libya's conflict, saying these amounted to taking sides in a civil war and breached the terms of a United Nations Security Council resolution.

On the eve of 35-nation talks in London, Italy proposed a political deal to end the Libya crisis, including a quick ceasefire, exile for Gaddafi and dialogue between rebels and tribal leaders.

Emboldened by the Western-led air strikes against Gaddafi's forces, the rebels have quickly reversed earlier losses and regained control of all the main oil terminals in the east of the OPEC member country.

"We want to go to Sirte today. I don't know if it will happen," said 25-year-old rebel fighter Marjai Agouri as he waited with 100 others outside Bin Jawad with three multiple rocket launchers, six anti-aircraft guns and around a dozen pick-up trucks with machineguns mounted on them.

But the rapid advance is stretching rebel supply lines.

"We have a serious problem with petrol," said a volunteer fighter waiting to fill his vehicle in the oil town of Ras Lanuf.

Al Jazeera said the rebels had seized the town of Nawfaliyah from forces loyal to Gaddafi, extending their advance westwards towards his hometown of Sirte, about 120 km (75 miles) away.

However a Reuters correspondent who was about 15 km (10 miles) west of Bin Jawad on the road to Nawfaliyah heard a sustained bombardment on the road ahead.

"This is the frontline. The army has stopped over there, we are stopping here," Mohammed al-Turki, 21, a fighter at a rebel checkpoint, told Reuters, pointing to the road ahead where the sounds of blasts were coming from.

Western-led air strikes began on March 19, two days after the U.N. Security Council authorised "all necessary measures" to protect civilians from Gaddafi's forces. But since the outset, the mission has faced questions about its scope and aims, including the extent to which it will actively back the rebel side and whether it might target Gaddafi himself.

Russia, which abstained in the U.N. vote, said Western attacks on Gaddafi's forces amounted to taking sides with the rebels.

"We consider that intervention by the coalition in what is essentially an internal civil war is not sanctioned by the UN Security Council resolution," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference.
Russian oil company Tatneft is expected to book $100 million of losses on capital expenditure in Libya as a result of the conflict, a company source told Reuters.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the BBC: "We are there to protect civilians -- no more, no less." France, which dropped the first bombs of the campaign nine days ago, said the coalition was strictly complying with U.N. terms.
Qatar became the first Arab country to recognise the rebels -- now in the sixth week of their uprising against Gaddafi's 41-year rule -- as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people.

Contradicting a rebel claim to have captured Sirte, Reuters correspondent Michael Georgy reported from the city that the situation was normal. He had seen some police and military, but no signs of any fighting.

Soldiers were manning checkpoints and green Libyan flags flapped in the wind. Militiamen fired AK-47 rifles defiantly into the air. "If they come to Sirte, we will defend our city," said Osama bin Nafaa, 32, a policeman.

As Gaddafi's hometown and an important military base, Sirte -- about half-way along the coast from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi to Tripoli -- has great symbolic and strategic value.. If it fell, the rebels would gain a psychological boost and the road towards the capital would lie open.

As the rebels pressed forward in the east, they reported attacks by Gaddafi's forces in the west.

Gaddafi loyalists now control part of Misrata, the country's third largest city, a rebel spokesman said. The government in Tripoli said it had "liberated" Misrata from rebels.

A rebel spokesman in another western town, Zintan, said forces loyal to Gaddafi bombarded the town with rockets early on Monday, Al Jazeera reported.

The Defence Ministry in London said British Tornado aircraft attacked and destroyed Libyan government ammunition bunkers in the Sabha area of Libya's southern desert in the early hours of Monday.

Libya's state news agency Jana said the raids caused several casualties.

CHANGE OF COMMAND
On Sunday, NATO agreed to take full command of military operations in Libya after a week of heated negotiations. The United States, which led the initial phase, had sought to scale back its role in another Muslim country after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

An alliance spokeswoman said on Monday the transition would take a couple of days.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Western air strikes had "eliminated" Gaddafi's ability to move his heavy weapons. He also raised the possibility that Gaddafi's government could splinter and said an international conference in London on Tuesday would discuss political strategies to help bring an end to his rule.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told reporters he had discussed Rome's proposals for a political deal on Libya with Germany, France and Sweden and expected to do so with Turkey later on Monday, ahead of Tuesday's 35-nation talks.
He said an African country could offer Gaddafi asylum, and ruled out that the Libyan leader would remain in power.
"Gaddafi must understand that it would be an act of courage to say: 'I understand that I have to go'," Frattini added. "We hope that the African Union can find a valid proposal."

Libya accused NATO of "terrorising" and killing its people as part of a global plot to humiliate and weaken it.
The government says Western-led air attacks have killed more than 100 civilians, a charge denied by the coalition which says it is protecting civilians from Gaddafi's forces and targeting only military sites to enforce a no-fly zone.