BREGA, Libya – Libyan jets struck rebel positions Thursday as US President Barack Obama stepped up demands that Moamer Kadhafi cede power and his Russian counterpart warned of an impending civil war.
Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez joined the diplomatic offensive, proposing an international mediation mission to pull the North African country back from the brink, a move rejected late Thursday by the rebels as “too late”.
It was the offensive on the ground that focused minds on the 17th day of the uprising against Kadhafi’s 41-year rule as his air force bombed rebel positions in the oil town of Brega.
Following a pattern established in earlier air raids, the bombs missed their target, in this case Brega’s oil refinery.
The crump of bombs and the sight of the planes scything through the sky sparked fears of a new bid by troops loyal to Kadhafi to recapture the port, 200 kilometres (125 miles) southwest of the main eastern city of Benghazi.
Rebels managed to beat off a dawn attack on Brega on Wednesday in the first real military battle since the Libyan uprising began on February 15.
Rumours flew Thursday of government troops regrouping and being joined by hundreds of mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa, but by nightfall there was no sign of a new offensive.
Obama told a press conference at the White House that Kadhafi’s attacks on his own people demonstrated that he had lost all legitimacy.
“The United States and the entire world continues to be outraged by the appalling violence against the Libyan people,” he said.
“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.”
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev provided one of the starkest assessments yet from a world leader when he said Libya was on the brink of a civil war.
“Libya was and is on the verge of civil war, and our main task was to save our people there,” state media reported him as telling Moscow’s emergencies minister as they reviewed a successful evacuation of Russian nationals.
Kadhafi had warned on Wednesday that “thousands” would die if the West launched military action, following calls by some opposition figures for Western airstrikes against the regime.
The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor said in The Hague that Kadhafi and key aides will face investigation over allegations they committed crimes against humanity in trying to crush the uprising.
“We have identified some individuals with de facto or formal authority, who have authority over the security forces,” Luis Moreno-Ocampo told journalists.
“They are Moamer Kadhafi, his inner circle, including some of his sons.”
And on Thursday the Dutch defence ministry said three of its marines helping to evacuate civilians had been captured by government soldiers.
Dutch defence ministry spokesman Otte Beeksma told AFP the marines were seized by Kadhafi loyalists in Sirte, between Benghazi and Tripoli, on Sunday as they were helping evacuate two civilians by helicopter.
France and Britain revived talk of imposing a no-fly zone after the United States dampened expectations of any early decision on the move the day before.
British Foreign Minister William Hague said in Paris after meeting his French counterpart Alain Juppe that “the international community including us and other partners will continue to plan for different contingencies, including a no-fly zone…”
A Venezuelan minister said Libya and the Arab League are considering a mediation proposal by Chavez to find a peaceful end to the crisis.
“We can confirm Libya’s interest in accepting this proposal, as well as the Arab League’s” interest, Information Minister Andres Izarra told AFP.
But the rebels flatly rejected the move late Thursday.
“We have a very clear statement. It’s too late. Too much blood has been spilt,” Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the opposition’s self-declared national council set up in the eastern city of Benghazi, told AFP.
The patchwork Libyan opposition controls swathes of eastern and western Libya including Benghazi and some oil installations. Kadhafi remains firmly in control of the capital Tripoli.
But NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Brussels on Thursday that the alliance has no intention of intervening in Libya although it is planning for “all eventualities.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that any military action by the West would be “controversial” in the Arab world and that the Libyan opposition wanted to be seen to be dislodging Kadhafi’s forces on their own.
China said Libya’s territorial integrity must be respected and that the UN Security Council must decide future international moves.
A major European operation was under way Thursday to airlift out of Tunisia thousands of people who fled the bloodshed in Libya as Washington also offered planes to repatriate Egyptian refugees.
More French and British flights were planned Thursday with extra aircraft due, including from Spain, and ships from France, Germany and Italy also expected in the coming days.
More than 100,000 people have already left Libya to escape the violence which has left at least 1,000 dead, according to conservative UN estimates. A Libyan rights group has put the death toll at the hands of pro-Kadhafi forces as high as 6,000.
World oil prices slid, with Brent North Sea crude for delivery in April diving $1.60 to $114.75 per barrel on news of Venezuela’s intervention.
New York’s light sweet crude, West Texas Intermediate (WTI), shed 44 cents to $101.79.
Libyan National Oil Corporation head Shukri Ghanem told AFP production — estimated at some 1.6 million barrels per day — had been “halved” because the unrest had caused foreign workers, including key technicians, to flee.
Anger at authoritarian Arab regimes in the Middle East and North Africa continued to rage.
In Cairo, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq resigned unexpectedly Thursday, sparking celebrations from protesters who demand a purge of the remnants of ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
In Sanaa, it was announced that Yemeni opposition groups and religious leaders had offered embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh plans for a smooth exit from power by the end of 2011.
In Saudi Arabia, cyber activists called for a “Day of Anger” on Friday in the eastern Shiite-majority region, following the arrest of a Shiite cleric.
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