Rebels and NATO Strikes Repel Assault on Key Libyan Townhttp://www.nytimes.com/2011/
AJDABIYA, Libya — Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s military forces appeared to falter in eastern Libya on Sunday on the second day of an assault against the strategic rebel city of Ajdabiya, as opposition fighters aided by NATO airstrikes retook their positions and claimed the checkpoints at the city’s approaches.
Occasional skirmishes on Sunday morning appeared to be subsiding in the late afternoon. And other than an apparent mortar attack against a rebel checkpoint, the loyalists’ artillery and rocket batteries were mostly silent as evening approached, when rebel fighters roamed many of Ajdabiya’s streets with confidence.
Their presence marked a sharp turnabout from the fighting on Saturday, when sustained artillery or rocket barrages sent the bulk of rebel forces running. As the shells exploded on the streets, loyalist forces infiltrated the city, fighting gun battles in its center against a contingent of local men who had stayed to defend their homes.
By Sunday, the worst of the threat from the Qaddafi loyalists appeared to have passed. At 4 p.m., a long rebel column of pickup trucks drove slowly through Ajdabiya’s main street, firing rifles and anti-aircraft machine guns in the air. It was a celebratory parade. “I think the Qaddafi forces go out of the city,” a doctor working at the city’s hospital said, in English.
Meanwhile, an African Union delegation said it met with Colonel Qaddafi in Tripoli in an effort to broker a cease-fire and planned to meet with rebel leaders in Benghazi on Monday. A member of the delegation said at a news conference Sunday night that the issue of Colonel Qaddafi’s possible departure had been broached, but he said details of the discussion would remain confidential.
The rebels’ gains in eastern Libya were aided by NATO airstrikes throughout the morning and afternoon outside Ajdabiya, at a vital crossroads of highway networks in eastern Libya.
NATO officials reported destroying tanks over the last day on the western approaches to Ajdabiya and in the rebel holdout city of Misurata, where civilian casualties have reportedly been heavy.
“The situation in Ajdabiya, and Misurata in particular, is desperate for those Libyans who are being brutally shelled by the regime,” said Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, the Canadian commander of the NATO air operation.
The effects of Western air power were evident in a grisly display near Ajdabiya’s southwestern checkpoint, where a line of charred corpses of Colonel Qaddafi’s soldiers were arrayed on the sand beside the smoldering remains of their pickup trucks. The nearby checkpoint, overlooking a landscape of ruined military vehicles and abandoned munitions, was back in rebel control.
The city’s morgue presented another chilling site — the remains of a man whose wrists had been bound and whose torso had bullet wounds. The attendants at the morgue said the man had been executed while helpless.
Who he was, and who had killed him, was not immediately clear. Colonel Qaddafi’s forces have been credibly accused of executing detainees during the uprising. But on Saturday, journalists for The New York Times observed a man accused of being a Qaddafi agent being summarily executed by rebels at Ajdabiya’s northeast checkpoint.
With the immediate danger that Ajdabiya might fall now having passed, another shift in mood was discernable among the rebels. They assembled on pickup trucks, many equipped with a fresh batch of jury-rigged surface-to-air rocket pods scrounged from the looted military arsenals, and seemed eager to rush southwest and rejoin the battle for Brega, the oil town where the Qaddafi forces have been entrenched.
The situation on the dangerous ribbon of highway from Ajdabiya to Brega remained unknown. The rebels claimed to hold isolated pockets in the desert along the highway with groups of fighters who had been cut off from the main rebel forces when the Qaddafi forces had moved northward on Ajdabiya in recent days.
The rebels seemed to be preparing to resume the push for the oil assets of Brega and Ras Lanuf — an effort that has been repeatedly frustrated this month by the Qaddafi forces’ superior tactics and firepower.
While NATO’s operation is focused on destroying the heavy equipment that poses the most threat to civilians, the alliance’s statement said the airstrikes were also aiming at ammunition bunkers and supply lines. And it suggested that the events in Ajdabiya were not isolated.
“We are hitting the regime logistics facilities as well as their heavy weapons, because we know Qaddafi is finding it hard to sustain his attacks on civilians,” General Bouchard said.
As the fighting continued in its now familiar seesaw fashion, the African Union said that a high-level peace delegation led by President Jacob Zuma of South Africa had met in Tripoli on Sunday with Colonel Qaddafi. After the meeting, Reuters reported, Mr. Zuma said that the colonel had accepted a “roadmap” for ending the conflict. The Associated Press reported that the roadmap calls for an immediate cease-fire, cooperation in opening channels for humanitarian aid and starting a dialogue between the rebels and the government.
Reuters quoted Mr. Zuma: “The brother leader delegation has accepted the roadmap as presented by us. We have to give cease-fire a chance."
The delegation is scheduled to meet with rebel leaders in Benghazi on Monday. In recent weeks, the rebels have accepted the idea of a cease-fire with certain conditions — for example, the withdrawal of government troops from cities under siege, like Misurata. But they have been unwilling to accept any proposal that would allow the colonel or his sons to keep power.
In a new report, Human Rights Watch said government forces attacking Misurata had “targeted a medical clinic in violation of international law.” The group said that during attacks on March 23 and April 7 at the Misurata Polyclinic, shrapnel from mortar rounds killed a cafeteria worker and a man bringing food to the clinic. The report, citing local doctors, said that at least 250 people had been killed in the city during the past month.
Meanwhile on Sunday, concern continued for four journalists who were reported to have been detained by government forces. Those journalists — Clare Morgana Gillis, an American freelancer for TheAtlantic.com and USA Today; James Wright Foley, an American writer for GlobalPost; Manuel Varela de Seijas Brabo, a Spanish photographer; and Anton Lazarus Hammerl, a South African photographer — were said to be held by Libyan government officials.But the editor of The Atlantic, James Bennet, said in an article that their condition had still not been verified. “We are concerned that, despite reports Clare and the other three journalists are in the hands of the Libyan government, no diplomats or independent journalists have yet had access to them,” Mr. Bennet said. “We continue to appeal to the Libyan government to release Clare and our other colleagues promptly and safely.”