Rebels Stalled as Diplomats Meet on Libya in Londonhttp://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/29/world/africa/30libya.html?ref=global-home
BIN JAWWAD, Libya — Rebels seeking the ouster of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi traded rocket fire with loyalist forces who blunted the insurgents’ westward advance on Tuesday as an array of diplomats and public figures gathered in London to shape a political vision of a post-Qaddafi era.
“We meet now in London at a turning-point,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the conference, urging continued military action by the NATO-led coalition in Libya along with “political and diplomatic pressure that makes clear to Qaddafi that he must go.”
Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain opened the London conference by declaring: “We are here united in one purpose: to help the Libyan people in their hour of need.”
“We must help the Libyan people plan for their future,” he said, listing priorities including a broad humanitarian and post-conflict reconstruction program and help for Libyans to “plan now for the political future they want to build.”
On the ground, though, there was no indication that Colonel Qaddafi was prepared for the ceasefire demanded by the United Nations resolution 12 days ago authorizing the military operation in Libya. Mr. Cameron said the Libyan leader was still in “flagrant breach” of the resolution.
The conference got underway as loyalist forces protecting the strategically crucial town of Surt began to repel the rebels who had advanced toward them only the day before, sending volleys of missile fire that pushed the battle lines back further east.
A chaotic cavalcade of hundreds of trucks and cars carrying fighters streamed into this battered ghost town some 80 miles east of Surt, one of Colonel Qaddafi’s most significant bastions of support, which had been depicted as recently as Sunday as the next rebel objective. Surt is critical for both sides since it blocks the rebels’ advance toward the west of Libya and Tripoli.
On Monday, the rebels had moved about 40 miles east of Bin Jawwad toward Surt, but on Tuesday they fell back as loyalist missile fire grew closer. Then they seemed to regroup, stationing mobile missile launchers on hilltops to return fire. Bin Jawwad has switched hands three times in the last month, but it was not clear whether loyalist forces planned to recapture it or simply push the rebels further eastward.
There was no sign by midday Tuesday of the coalition airstrikes that had facilitated the rebel advance so far. In theory, Western military commanders say they send their warplanes into action only to protect civilians. Most civilians have fled Bin Jawwad in the weeks of conflict.
Late Monday, American warplanes appeared to have opened a new line of attack on pro-Qaddafi forces, firing on three Libyan vessels off the contested western port of Misurata to prevent them from shelling merchant shipping, news reports said, quoting a statement from the United States Navy Sixth Fleet.
One of the Libyan vessels, a patrol boat identified as the Vittoria, was forced to beach. Two smaller vessels were hit and one sank, the Navy said, in what seemed to be the first known incident of attacks at sea since Western forces began the military campaign in Libya 10 days ago. There were news reports that pro-Qaddafi forces spearheaded by tanks had again pushed into Misurata on Tuesday, hours before the London conference began.
In many places, the situation seemed confused. Government minders escorted foreign journalists on Tuesday to the town of Mizda, 125 miles south of Tripoli, to show them residents living in a tented encampment after allied airstrikes allegedly forced them from their homes. But when the busload of journalists and officials approached, five armed men emerged from the encampment and began firing over the visitors’ heads. Their identity was not immediately known, but the episode suggested limits on the government’s writ — and unpredictability as the country faces unparalleled uprising and warfare.
In London, the conference, grouping some 40 governments and international organizations including the United States, came a day after President Obama said regime change was “not something we can afford to repeat in Libya” after America’s involvement in Iraq. The meeting also followed a blunt assessment by the American military, which is conducting the bulk of the air campaign against pro-Qaddafi forces, that insurgent advances would be reversed quickly without continued strikes by coalition warplanes.
It remained unclear whether the conference would endorse an effort for Colonel Qaddafi to be brought before the International Criminal Court or whether, if he agreed to step down — which he has vowed not to — he should be permitted some safe exile. William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said it was “up to the government and people of Libya to decide where he should go and the coalition wouldn’t be in control of that.”
One aim of the London gathering is to set up a broad forum with the participation of Arab states to debate Libya’s political future and increase humanitarian aid after weeks of ground fighting and more than a week of missile and air- strikes in what has become the most brutal and most internationalized conflict since the clamor for political change began to sweep the Arab world more than three months ago. Since then, the autocratic rulers of Tunisia and Egypt have fallen, and protests with varying degrees of violence have broken out in lands from Yemen and Bahrain to Syria and Jordan.
The conflict in Libya has left settlements along the Mediterranean coastal highway battered as the momentum of battle shifts and towns change hands. At one point, pro-Qaddafi forces were virtually at the gates of Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital in the east, until allied airstrikes halted them a week ago, propelling the loyalists westward as they abandoned a string of coastal towns they had overrun before the United Nations Security Council authorized allied intervention.
Both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Cameron said on Tuesday that the first allied air strikes 10 days ago had prevented what she called “a potential massacre” in Benghazi, with loyalist troops massed just to the south of the city. Mr. Cameron Colonel Qaddafi of deploying snipers who left their victims to bleed to death on the streets of Misurata.
Britain, which joined France to press for the United Nations resolution, has invited Mahmoud Jibril, a member of the rebel Libyan National Council, to London during Tuesday’s gathering although he was not formally invited to the conference. France has already recognized the rebels as the sole representative of the Libyan people. In a document released on Tuesday, the rebels pledged to hold free elections to insure a transition to democracy if Colonel Qaddafi falls.
Others at the meeting included representatives of the Arab League and the African Union, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and foreign ministers from European and other NATO countries, the British Foreign Office said.
Mrs. Clinton said she met in London with Libyan rebel officials before the gathering, and, The Associated Press reported, the United States plans to send a senior diplomat soon to Benghazi to establish better ties with the insurgents.
Monday evening, there was a conference call among Mr. Obama, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Mr. Cameron and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany to discuss strategy before the London conference, a French Foreign Ministry official said on Tuesday.
“We are entering a new phase of the Libyan crisis,” the official said, speaking anonymously in accordance with diplomatic practice. “The end of Qaddafi is just a matter of time. He doesn’t belong to the future of his country.”
One basic question for the London gathering was “how we can help the Libyans to decide their own future,” the official said, adding that there was a “strong recommendation” to open an “ongoing national dialogue” among Libyans not associated with the regime. A senior European diplomat said that a main part of the London agenda would be to prepare for a humanitarian crisis.
With the oil-dominated Libyan economy in tatters after the flight of many workers, the country would begin to run out of stocks of food, cooking oil and other staples. Many oil industry workers fled the crisis in its early days, including food-service workers such as bakers, many of whom were Egyptians, also left the country, the diplomat said.