RAS LANUF, Libya (AFP) – Libyan rebels ceded ground to Moamer Kadhafi’s advancing forces Monday as the United States came under increasing pressure to arm the opposition and the UN appointed a special envoy to Tripoli.
The rebels began pulling back from the key oil terminal town of Ras Lanuf on Monday as a fighter jet blasted defences on the edge of town, throwing up palls of smoke amid rumours that government forces were gearing for an attack.
Amid the bloodiest fighting of the three-week old conflict Sunday, the United Nations demanded urgent access to scores of “injured and dying” in the western city of Misrata and rebels were forced to withdraw from the front line at Bin Jawad, 30 kilometres (19 miles) west along the coast from Ras Lanuf.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon said Kadhafi’s foreign minister agreed to let a “humanitarian assessment” team visit Tripoli and he named former Jordanian foreign minister Abdulilah al-Khatib as special envoy to deal with the regime. Khatib was to undertake “urgent consultations” with the Tripoli government.
With the military situation worsening and population centres threatened, key figures in US politics argued strongly for a US operation to arm the rebels and secure a no-fly zone over Libya to thwart Kadhafi’s air force.
Former US ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson said it was time to “covertly arm the rebels” and enforce a no-fly zone over Libya.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, a leading member of US President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party, said he assumed “a lot of weapons are going to find their way there from one means or another over the course of the next weeks.”
And Stephen Hadley, national security adviser to Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush, said Washington should look at the potential for funnelling arms to Kadhafi’s opponents.
“Obviously, if there is a way to get weapons into the hands of the rebels, if we can get anti-aircraft systems so that they can enforce a no-fly zone over their own territory, that would be helpful,” Hadley told CNN.
Kadhafi has not hesitated to use his air power against rebel positions, and reports that his jets bombed protesters in Benghazi in the early days of the revolt are among reported atrocities being investigated by war crimes prosecutors from the International Criminal Court.
Czech ex-president and communist-era dissident Vaclav Havel added his voice on Monday, saying military action on Libya by Western countries would be necessary if the armed conflict verging on civil war there lasts.
“Especially if it drags on and if Kadhafi keeps boarding himself up and committing further crimes, some action will be necessary,” Havel told the business daily Hospodarske Noviny in an interview.
Amid the ebb and flow on the battlefield, at least seven people were killed and more than 50 wounded in Sunday’s fierce clashes at Bin Jawad, medics said after evacuating Ras Lanuf’s sole hospital and ferrying the wounded further east into rebel territory at Ajdabiya.
The odd crackle of gunfire sounded early Monday across the eerily deserted streets of Ras Lanuf after vehicles loaded with armed rebels were seen speeding out of the town.
The remaining rebel presence appeared very thin, only about a dozen fighters manning the main checkpoint into the town.
Staff at the only hotel evacuated guests early Monday with staff knocking on doors, shouting “emergency, emergency, you should leave”. Almost all the guests were journalists. The staff said they had heard there would be a battle for the town.
The casualties in Ras Lanuf have been rebel fighters and volunteers.
But the situation in Misrata, Libya’s third city controlled by anti-regime opponents, prompted a dramatic appeal from the UN’s emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos, after Kadhafi tanks shelled the city centre on Sunday.
“Humanitarian organisations need urgent access now. People are injured and dying and need help immediately.
“I call on the authorities to provide access without delay to allow aid workers to help save lives,” Amos said in a statement late Sunday.
Residents of Misrata, strategically located between the capital Tripoli and Sirte — both key Kadhafi strongholds — had warned of “carnage” if the international community did not intervene.
The New York Times reported late Sunday that US defence planners are preparing a range of land, sea and air military options in Libya in case Washington and its allies decide to intervene there,
Citing unnamed administration officials, the newspaper said just simple use of signal-jamming aircraft in international airspace could muddle Libyan government communications with military units.
According to the report, another tactic would be to air-drop weapons and supplies to Libyan rebels.
Kadhafi, in an interview aired Monday by France24 television, repeated his accusation that Al-Qaeda was fomenting the revolt against his regime and railed against France.
When asked about Paris’s backing for the national council — the embryonic provisional government formed by rebels in the second city of Benghazi — Kadhafi said: “It makes one laugh, this interference in internal affairs.
“And what if we interfered in the affairs of Corsica or Sardinia?” he said, speaking in Arabic.
Britain was forced to admit its own, secret, attempt to begin negotiations with the rebels had ended ignominiously after opposition forces arrested a diplomat and a protection squad inserted clandestinely by helicopter.
In Benghazi, a rebel spokesman said the British team that landed nearby had not made prior arrangements, and was sent away.
Elsewhere, Yemen’s opposition movement has vowed to intensify protests against the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, after the embattled leader refused to resign by the end of the year.
In Algeria, Monday thousands of auxiliary village guards forced their way through police cordons and marched on parliament demanding pay rises.