Libyan town bombed as rebels push west
UQAYLA, Libya (AFP) – Libyan forces bombed the rebel town of Ajdabiya on Friday as anti-regime fighters pushed the front line westwards and the UN refugee agency voiced concern for the safety of those fleeing the violence.
US President Barack Obama said all options were on the table for driving Moamer Kadhafi out of power as the strongman’s son said air strikes on rebel-held positions were scare tactics rather than to inflict serious damage.
Despite grave reservations expressed by the US military command, Obama said a no-fly zone was among the “full range” of options as he demanded that Kadhafi “step down from power and leave.”
Forces still loyal to the veteran strongman, who has ruled the oil-rich North African state for 41 years, have been bombing rebel-held positions in Libya’s east in a counter-offensive launched on Wednesday.
The latest air strike, early Friday, targeted a military base on the edge of Ajdabiya, a strategic crossroads, rebels said.
There were no casualties or damage in the bombing, which came as hundreds of opposition volunteers rushed to defend their frontline in the nearby oil port of Brega.
At the same time, opposition forces also headed along the main coastal road out of Uqayla, a small village about 175 miles (280 kilometres) from the main rebel headquarters in Benghazi, Libya’s second city.
An AFP reporter about five miles west of Uqayla saw about six pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns heading still further west.
A patchwork coalition of rebels controls eastern Libya and some towns in the west following a revolt that started on February 15, but Kadhafi retains his grip on the capital Tripoli and parts of the west.
Kadhafi’s son Seif Al-Islam told Britain’s Sky News the air strikes were designed only to scare the rebels rather than cause damage, amid reports pilots reluctant to bomb their compatriots were deliberately missing their targets.
“This is the oil and gas hub of Libya,” he said, vowing the regime would do all in its power to recapture Brega.
“All of us, we eat, we live because of Brega. Without Brega six million people have no future because we export all of our oil from there.”
Kadhafi’s tight grip on the capital was to be tested following calls among the opposition to gather for demonstrations after Friday prayers, according to several Facebook and Twitter groups run by Libyans abroad.
Separately there were reports that Libyan state TV had called for protests against any foreign intervention in Libya. There was no immediate confirmation.
Scattered protests were staged in Tripoli on the Muslim day of rest a week ago but security forces opened fire indiscriminately on worshippers leaving mosques, killing several people and wounding dozens.
Tunisia’s regional Red Crescent representative Monji Slim said on Friday that around 100,000 people had fled across the border since February 20 — including 35,000 Egyptians and more than 10,000 from Bangladesh.
In Geneva, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Melissa Fleming said heavily armed pro-regime forces are now manning the Libyan side of the border with Tunisia, and that numbers crossing had dropped.
“On previous days, between 10,000 and 15,000 fled every day into Tunisia. Yesterday less than 2,000 made it across the border,” Fleming said.
“UNHCR is very concerned that the security situation in Libya may be preventing people crossing the border,” she added.
Kadhafi’s crackdown on the violence has killed at least 1,000 people, according to conservative UN estimates.
The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor said in The Hague that Kadhafi and key aides would face investigation over alleged crimes against humanity.
Obama told a White House news conference that Kadhafi’s “appalling violence” on his own people showed that he had lost all legitimacy.
“Going forward, we will continue to send a clear message: The violence must stop. Moamar Kadhafi has lost legitimacy to lead and he must leave,” he said.
Obama said he did not want to be “hamstrung” in his options and confirmed that a no-fly zone was under consideration. Britain and France back the idea, but there are divisions internationally and even within Washington.
Kadhafi’s ally President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela joined the diplomatic offensive, proposing an international mediation mission to pull Libya from what Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said was the “verge of civil war”.
The Chavez proposal got short shrift from the West, and Libyan rebels in their eastern fiefdom argued that Kadhafi was free to flee to Venezuela if he chose.
The Libya disruption has been a factor in driving up world oil prices, along with unrest against authoritarian regimes across the Arab world.
Crude prices resumed their upward path in Asian trade Friday, with New York’s main contract, light sweet crude for delivery in April, or West Texas Intermediate, rising 12 cents to $102.03 per barrel.
Brent North Sea crude for April delivery gained 12 cents to $114.91.
Anti-government protests were held in a string of Arab capitals after the weekly prayers on Friday, including in Baghdad, Amman and Manama.
As protests raged across Yemen, Shiite rebels said Yemeni troops killed four demonstrators and wounded seven others when they fired on an anti-regime rally in the north.
In Iraq, thousands of protesters massed in cities and towns after streaming in on foot in defiance of vehicle bans for rallies over corruption, unemployment and poor public services.