SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

April 1, 2011

Gadhafi: Leaders of airstrikes should go, not me

HADEEL AL-SHALCHI and RYAN LUCAS
Associated Press

AJDABIYA, Libya — Rebels were showing signs of increased organization Friday as they battled Moammar Gadhafi's forces in eastern Libya, and appeared to have more weapons and communications equipment.

Forces loyal to Libya's leader of nearly 42 years spent much of this week pushing the rebels back about 100 miles along the coast, and the opposition was trying to regroup. The rebels had mortars Friday, weapons they previously appeared to have lacked, and on Thursday night they drove in a convoy with at least eight rocket launchers — more artillery than usual.

The rebels also appeared to have more communication equipment such as radios and satellite phones, and were working in more organized units, in which military defectors were each leading six or seven volunteers.

The rebels' losses this week, and others before airstrikes began March 19, underlined that their equipment, training and organization were far inferior to those of Gadhafi's forces. The recent changes appear to be an attempt to correct, or at least ease, the imbalance.

In another change, rebels were holding journalists back at the western gate of Ajdabiya, far from the fighting. It was unclear where the front line was Friday, but on Thursday had moved into Brega, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Ajdabiya, before Gadhafi's forces pushed them out.

Gadhafi's greatest losses this week were not military but political. Two members of his inner circle, including his foreign minister, abandoned him Wednesday and Thursday, setting off speculation about other officials who may be next. The defections could sway people who have stuck with Gadhafi despite the uprising that began Feb. 15 and the international airstrikes aimed at keeping the autocrat from attacking his own people.

Libya's chief of intelligence took to is knocking down rumors that he is among the government insiders who have abandoned their embattled leader, Moammar Gadhafi.

Libyan state TV aired a phone interview with intelligence chief Bouzeid Dorda to knock down rumors that he also left Gadhafi.

"I am in Libya and will remain here steadfast in the same camp of the revolution despite everything," Dorda said. "I never thought to cross the borders or violate commitment to the people, the revolution and the leader."

Gadhafi struck a defiant stance in a statement Thursday, saying he's not the one who should go — it's the Western leaders who have decimated his military with airstrikes who should resign immediately. Gadhafi's message was undercut by its delivery — a scroll across the bottom of state TV as he remained out of sight.

The White House said the strongman's inner circle was clearly crumbling with the loss of Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa, who flew from Tunisia to England on Wednesday.

Ali Abdessalam Treki, a former foreign minister and U.N. General Assembly president, announced his departure on several opposition websites the next day, saying "It is our nation's right to live in freedom and democracy and enjoy a good life."

Gadhafi accused the leaders of the countries attacking his forces of being "affected by power madness."

"The solution for this problem is that they resign immediately and their peoples find alternatives to them," the Libya state news agency quoted him as saying.

His government's forces have regained momentum on the rapidly moving front line of the battle with opposition forces, retaking the town of Brega after pushing the rebels miles back toward the territory they hold in eastern Libya.

The rebels said they were undaunted, taking heart from the departures in Gadhafi's inner circle.

"We believe that the regime is crumbling from within," opposition spokesman Mustafa Gheriani said in Benghazi, the rebels' de facto capital.

He compared Gadhafi to a wounded animal.

"An injured wolf is much more dangerous than a healthy wolf. But we hope the defections continue and I think he'll find himself with no one around him," Gheriani said.

Most high-level Libyan officials are trying to defect but are under tight security and having difficulty leaving the country, said Ibrahim Dabbashi, the deputy ambassador in Libya's U.N. mission, which now backs the opposition.

Koussa is privy to all the inner workings of the regime, so his departure could open the door for some hard intelligence, though Britain refused to offer him immunity from prosecution.

"Koussa is one of the pillars of Gadhafi's regime since the 1970s," said Abdel Moneim al-Houni, a former Libyan Arab League representative who was among the first wave of Libyan diplomats to defect this month. "His defection means that he knew that the end of Gadhafi is coming and he wanted to jump from the sinking boat."

Libyan officials, who initially denied Koussa's defection, said he had resigned because he was sick with diabetes and high blood pressure. Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said Koussa was given permission to go to Tunisia, but the regime was surprised to learn he had flown to London.

"I talked to many people and this is not a happy piece of news, but people are saying, 'So what? If someone wants to step down that's his decision,'" Ibrahim said.

Nations behind the campaign of international airstrikes that have hobbled Libya's military hailed Koussa's resignation as a sign of weakness in Gadhafi's reign. They're hoping for nonmilitary solution, in part because the rebels have been seriously outgunned.

The U.S. has ruled out using ground troops in Libya but it is considering providing arms to the rebels.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, however, told Congress on Thursday that the U.S. still knows little about the rebels, and that if anyone arms and trains them it should be some other country.

Asked by a lawmaker whether U.S. involvement might inevitably mean "boots on the ground" in Libya, Gates replied, "Not as long as I am in this job."

NATO is among those saying a new U.N. resolution would be required to arm rebels, though Britain and the U.S. disagree. Several world leaders oppose arming rebels, including Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said in London that it could "create an environment which could be conducive to terrorism."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's special envoy, Abdelilah Al-Khatib, arrived Thursday in Tripoli, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said. He was also expected to talk to the Libyan opposition, Haq said, without providing details.

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Lucas reported from Ajdabiya, Libya. Ben Hubbard in Benghazi, John Heilprin in Geneva and Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.