More fighting in Libya, inaction elsewhere


Libyan rebels repelled a counter-offensive by leader Muammar Gaddafi’s troops overnight and again appealed to foreign powers to impose a no-fly zone to stop further attacks overrunning their three-week uprising. But the African Union’s Peace and Security Council is opposed to such an intervention. Meanwhile, South African President Jacob Zuma has ordered the country’s Treasury to freeze assets linked to Gaddafi and his associates.

Government forces, with air supremacy and a big advantage in tanks, still appear to have regained the momentum and their push could overtake sluggish international efforts to halt Gaddafi. The sound of explosions and small arms fire came from Ras Lanuf yesterday as government troops landed from the sea backed by tanks and air power fought to recapture the oil port town, Reuters reports.

After hours of fighting, insurgents withdrew east of the small town and a large column of black smoke billowed from storage tanks at ras Lanuf’s oil installation. Rebels said the plant was hit by a series of government air strikes, but the Libyan government denied bombing the storage tanks.

The insurgents then regrouped outside the town and counter-attacked and seized it back, they said.
“There has been intense fighting with Gaddafi’s forces. They have withdrawn from the residential area to the west. We are now combing the area,” rebel fighter Mohammed Aboul Hassan told Reuters by telephone from Ras Lanuf.

As a host of international bodies agonise over whether, or how to impose a no-fly zone, Gaddafi’s warplanes are carrying out air strikes seemingly unhindered by insurgent anti-aircraft guns mounted on the back of pick-up trucks.

Many rebels were angry at international inaction. “Where is the West? How are they helping? What are they doing,” shouted one angry fighter. Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam told the rebels they faced a full-scale assault to crush their uprising which began after Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in neighbouring Egypt a month ago. “It’s time for action. We are moving now,” he told Reuters in an interview on Thursday.

In Tripoli, Libyan security forces used tear gas and fired in the air to disperse worshippers near a mosque before they could even attempt any protest, a Libyan said, citing witnesses. West of the capital, the revolt in Zawiyah was crushed and state television broadcast live pictures of jubilant Gaddafi supporters waving green flags in the main square. The only town now holding out in western Libya is Misrata, about 200 km (125 miles) east of Tripoli. It was calm on Friday, but rebels said they were expecting an attack to come soon.

As EU heads of government prepared to meet in Brussels on Friday, Libya’s insurgent leader warned that any delay in imposing a no-fly zone could let Gaddafi regain control. “We ask the international community to shoulder their responsibilities,” Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, head of the National Libyan Council, told the BBC. “The Libyans are being cleansed by Gaddafi’s air force. We asked for a no-fly zone to be imposed from day one, we also want a sea embargo,” he said.

Some 15,000 worshippers gathered outside the courthouse that has become the headquarters of the National Libyan Council in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. “Help us to become a democratic country,” said one banner strung between lampposts and written in English and Arabic.

But Britain and France faced scepticism from other EU members as they pushed for tough action against Gaddafi, with Germany sounding a note of caution. French President Nicolas Sarkozy wants the EU to follow his lead and recognised the Libyan National Council as the legitimate authority. He said France and Britain were “open”, if the United Nations backed it, to “defensive” air strikes against Gaddafi’s forces if they used chemical weapons or warplanes to target the civilian population. But in practice, any military action will require the participation of the United States which, along with NATO, has expressed doubt over the wisdom of imposing no-fly zones without full international backing and a legal justification. US National Intelligence chief James Clapper said Gaddafi was “in this for the long haul” and was likely to prevail.

Clapper said that Libya’s large arsenal of Russian weapons, including 31 surface-to-air missile sites and radar systems, mean that forces loyal to Gaddafi are better equipped and have more logistical resources, and “over longer term, that the regime will prevail.” “The Libyan air defence structure on the ground, radars and surface-to-air missiles, is quite substantial. In fact, it’s the second largest in the Mideast, after Egypt,” he said. Some of Libya’s Russian weaponry has been seized by rebels, Clapper said, but added there are worries certain weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists.
“They have a large, large number of MANPADS — that is, man-portable surface-to-air missiles — and of course there’s great concern there about them falling into the wrong hands,” he told the Senate panel, Reuters reported.

Meanwhile, the Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, reports the African Union (AU) has rejected military intervention in Libya to stop a crackdown on Gaddafi’s opponents. “The council reaffirms its firm commitment to the respect of the unity and territorial integrity of Libya,” AU Peace and Security Council commissioner Ramtane Lamamra said at the AU’s Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, headquarters.

The AU’s 15-member peace and security council decided “to put in place a high level AU ad hoc committee” to monitor the crisis in the country.

Reuters seperately reports South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma has ordered the Treasury to freeze assets linked to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his associates. “The process is underway and we are writing letters informing them that no money will be allowed to leave South Africa,” international relations deputy director general for public diplomacy, Clayson Monyela, said without offering further details.

Local daily Business Day said the money is invested through the $5 billion Libya Arab Africa Investment Co (Laaico), through Libya Oil Holdings, Libya African Investment Portfolio and Libyan Foreign Investment Company (Lafico). In South Africa, it owns Ensemble Hotel holdings, including the luxury Michelangelo Hotel in Johannesburg, Reuters added. Libya holds billions of dollars in assets in Africa through subsidiaries of its $70 billion sovereign wealth fund.

Zuma’s office said on Wednesday that Gaddafi called Zuma “to explain his side of the story”. International relations minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said Thursday Zuma told the Libyan strongman South Africa abhorred the “heinous violation of human rights against his own people”,. “We took advantage through our President to tell him this has to stop with immediate effect,” she adds.

Nkoana-Mashabane told a media briefing in Pretoria Zuma also told the long-time Libyan strongman that South Africa led a campaign to suspend Libya from the UN Human Rights Council based in Geneva, Switzerland. The body is currently headed by South African judge Navi Pillay.

The minister also likened Gaddafi’s actions to the 1961 Sharpeville and 1976 Soweto massacres of unarmed civilians by Apartheid security forces.

Zuma’s office refused on Wednesday to confirm or deny reports about what he said to the embattled Libyan leader as reported by the BBC, crediting Libyan TV. The latter allegedly quoted Zuma as calling on the African Union (AU) to “take decisive action and uncover the conspiracy that Libyan (sic) is facing”. Zuma was also quoted as “stressing the need not to depend on tendentious reports circulated by foreign media outlets and the need to listen to the Libyan media in this regard”. His office issued a statement late on Wednesday saying that it “would not be drawn into rumours and distortions of the conversation with Gaddafi, who had called to explain his side of the story”.

The Presidency also said that Zuma had spoken out “clearly” on the Libyan issue, openly condemning the loss of life, attacks on civilians and reported violations of human rights in Libya. “The country supports the positions taken by the African Union and the United Nations on Libya and there has never been any ambiguity about the position of either President Zuma or the country. The President stated his views and those of the country publicly as well at a press conference with President Nicolas Sarkozy of the Republic of France during the recent state visit, where he amongst others, called for an end to violence against civilians.”

Nkoana-Mashabane emphasised that South Africa not only supported but also co-sponsored the United Nations Security Council resolution last month imposing sanctions and an arms embargo on Gaddafi. “It is only President Zuma who has consistently followed up on the many misadventures by Gaddafi in the AU. When Gaddafi tried to remain permanent president or chairman of the AU, it was President Zuma who confronted him and told him, ‘We have to respect the statutes of the AU and if you try to do that, we will embarrass you by making sure you do not become permanent chairman or president’.” Zuma had also “taken Gaddafi to task” at the AU summit in 2010 when he proposed a resolution to transform the AU into a “United States of Africa”

She declined to say whether South Africa supported proposals to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Gaddafi’s forces bombing opposition towns and cities.