AJDABIYA, Libya (AFP) – Forces loyal to Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi on Monday launched attacks on a key town that rebels have vowed to defend, as leading nations began talks on the crisis.
Rebel fighters in Ajdabiya said four shells had fallen west of the town while a former officer who defected from Kadhafi’s air force said there had been air strikes.
Ex-colonel Jamal Mansur also said that rebels had regained a foothold in Brega, 80 kilometres (50 miles) to the west, which the Libyan army said it had captured Sunday.
Ajdabiya guards vital roads north along the coast to the rebel capital of Benghazi and east across the desert to the oil port of Tobruk, which has given the insurgents control of eastern Libya up to the Egyptian border.
The lightly-armed rebels have been pushed back some 200 kilometres by superior forces in recent days and are now only 170 kilometres from Benghazi, Libya’s second city with a population of around a million.
The rebels braced for new attacks knowing they could expect little quarter from Kadhafi’s troops equipped with heavy weaponry and warplanes to which they have virtually no answer.
Libyan army spokesman Colonel Milad Hussein told reporters in Tripoli those troops were “marching to cleanse the country” of insurgents, whom he called “rats and terrorists.”
But state television in Tripoli said Monday that former Libyan soldiers like Mansur who defected to the rebels will be pardoned if they surrender to government forces.
Mansur admitted the rebels were seriously ill-equipped and warned that they could turn to urban guerrilla warfare.
“We are asking the West to carry out targeted strikes on military installations” as proposed by France, he said as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Paris for talks with G8 counterparts.
Clinton was also to meet members of Libya’s opposition national council in Paris on Monday or Tuesday, a US official said.
The Group of Eight powers — Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United States and Russia — were to discuss proposals for a no-fly zone to ground the warplanes pounding Libya’s rebel forces.
Britain and France have a draft resolution in hand for the UN Security Council to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe on Sunday vowed to step up efforts to get the measure approved.
Russia has appeared reluctant and the United States, Germany and Italy have taken a cautious line on intervention, but the move was backed on Saturday by the 22-nation Arab League.
A no-fly zone plan is to be put to NATO on Tuesday, according to Clinton, but alliance member Turkey voiced opposition Monday to intervention, which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said could have dangerous consequences.
Meanwhile Libya’s state news agency said Kadhafi had invited Chinese, Russian and Indian firms to produce its oil instead of Western companies that fled the unrest.
Most oil companies operating in Libya, including French Total and Chinese CNPC, have partially or completely shut down production since the uprising against Kadhafi began a month ago.
The television said Sunday that following recent military successes, “Libyan oil terminals have become safe… All employees are asked to return to their jobs in all oil facilities. And we urge (foreign) firms to send their tankers to load and unload.”
Total said Friday that the unrest in Libya had slashed output by 1.4 million barrels a day to under 300,000, but Qatar’s Energy Minister Mohammed Saleh al-Sada said on Sunday that the world oil market was “comfortable” despite the conflict.
The leader of the rebels’ national council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, was quoted by the Financial Times on Monday as saying that countries not supporting the uprising would miss out on access to Libya’s oil if Kadhafi’s regime is deposed.
In other developments Russia slapped an entry ban Monday on Kadhafi and froze all financial operations involving the Libyan leader’s family and top security aides involved in the violent crackdown on the opposition.
President Dmitry Medvedev’s decree placed entry and transit restrictions on Kadhafi and 15 other figures including his children and “participants of the acts of violence against the demonstrators.”
The group included the head of Kadhafi’s personal security team and the minister of defence and chief of the foreign intelligence service.
Medvedev’s decree also prohibited the export of all goods and services that may be potentially linked to any type of military activity, in addition to an arms export ban imposed four days ago.
In Bahrain thousands of protesters poured into the banking hub, witnesses said, as Saudi forces seemed poised to help the embattled government restore order in the strategic Gulf kingdom, home to the US Fifth Fleet.
Some 1,000 Saudi troops entered Bahrain on Sunday as part of the Gulf countries’ joint Peninsula Shield Force, a Saudi official said, “after repeated calls by the government for dialogue, which went unanswered” by the opposition.
The government has not confirmed the presence of Saudi troops in the mainly-Shiite archipelago, which has been ruled by a Sunni dynasty for more than 200 years.
On Sunday, the worst day of violence in the kingdom since seven people were killed at the start of the unrest, more than 200 people were injured in the business district in clashes between riot police and demonstrators, residents said.
By Karim Talbi