Libyan rebels seize momentum

Rebels secure Ajdabiya as US military considering new options to assist

Libya's opposition movement recaptured the strategic eastern city of Ajdabiya yesterday, helped by international air strikes on government forces.

"We're succeeding in our mission," the US president, Barack Obama, said in his weekly radio talk. Addressing international and domestic worries about the prospect of a drawn-out stand-off in Libya, the president said that "every day the pressure on Qaddafi and his regime is increasing".

The president, who is facing criticism from both major parties in his country for not having explained American involvement and goals in Libya adequately, plans to give a major speech on Libya tomorrow.

He addressed some of the concerns in his remarks yesterday, emphasising that the US is not acting alone on Libya and is also receiving Arab support. "This is now a broad international effort. Our allies and partners are enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya and the arms embargo at sea. Key Arab partners like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have committed aircraft."

Qatar became the first Arab country to fly fighter planes over Libya in support of the coalition-imposed no-fly zone on Friday. The importance of the Qatari contribution, which is set to be followed by the UAE, was recognised by Libya's opposition movement, based in Benghazi.

"Qatar has been a great ally from day one," said Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the Benghazi city council. "It's an Arab country to be proud of."

The coalition also emphasised the significance of the Qatari participation. "We are very happy to have the Qatar Emiri air force become part of our coalition team," said Maj Gen Margaret Woodward, a commander of the no-fly zone operation. "Having our first Arab nation join and start flying with us emphasises that the world wants the innocent Libyan people protected from the atrocities perpetrated by pro-regime forces."

The seesawing battle on the ground presents a dilemma to the international coalition intervening in Libya. Under the UN resolution that authorises the operation, action is allowed only to protect the civilian population and impose a no-fly zone and an arms embargo. But coalition countries do not relish the idea of long-term involvement in Libya or of Col Moammar Qaddafi remaining in power.

The US military is reported to be considering additional options to actively help the rebels defeat Col Qaddafi's forces. The American general in charge of the overall operation, Carter Ham, said that intervening in the fighting inside the cities was perilous as "we'd be killing the very people that we're charged with protecting".

The coalition operations have so far mostly focused on destroying the government's heavy weaponry outside the contested towns and cutting off the government's supply lines. The Pentagon is now reported to be considering deploying weapons that are better suited to urban combat such as AC-130 gunships, helicopters and drones. Another option that is being discussed internationally is arming and training the rebels. Libya's government yesterday condemned the international air and missile strikes and said that the rebel offensive in Ajdabiya was directly supported by the coalition countries. "They were heavily involved, so the Libyan armed forces decided to leave Ajdabiya this morning," said the deputy foreign minister, Khaled Kaim. Later yesterday, a rebel spokesmen said that the coalition had also hit government forces in the outskirts of the heavily contested city of Misurata, further to the west. The United States, France and Britain, which account for the bulk of the military forces intervening in Libya, have all indicated that their interpretation of the UN resolution allows for such actions. They reason that government forces form a danger to the populations in the cities that are under their control. One resident in the western city of Zwara said that pro-Qaddafi agents were abducting civilians there and in the city of Zawiya. "They have lists of demonstrators and videos and so on and they are seeking them out. We are all staying home and waiting for this to be over," he said.

In a letter addressed to the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, in the newspaper Le Figaro, the opposition's interim national council leader, Mahmoud Jibril, said, "We do not want outside forces. We won't need them. We will win the first battle thanks to you. We will win the next battle through our own means." France was one of the countries that pushed hardest for military intervention. Mr Obama, in his address yesterday, repeated that he had no intention of deploying troops on the ground. "We are not putting any ground forces into Libya," he said.