Libya: Rebels flee Brega as Gaddafi advances


Family members grieve at the funeral of rebel fighter Emad al-Giryani a day after he was killed in fighting with government troops on March 12, 2011 in Abdajiya, Libya.


John Moore

A fierce attack by troops loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi forced poorly armed rebels to flee the eastern town of Brega Sunday, as the Arab League pushed the United Nations to support a no-fly zone over the country.

Gaddafi troops used rocket launchers and artillery to force the rebels to flee the key oil town, which has been a source of fuel for their vehicles, the Guardian reports.

"They shot 40 to 60 rockets at the same time," Suliman Refadi, a doctor fleeing Brega hospital, told the Guardian. "The sky was raining with rockets, with shrapnel. There was heavy artillery. Then they advanced."

State television in Tripoli announced: "Brega has been cleansed of armed gangs."

Opposition forces, though, claimed they moved back into Brega in the evening, AP reports. News organizations were not able to independently verify the claims given the security situation.

The attack on Brega opens the path for Gaddafi forces to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi less than 150 miles away.

As Gaddafi's forces advance eastward, recapturing town after town, pressure has been growing for the international community to support the poorly organized "ragtag" crew of rebels.

In an unprecedented move, the Arab League asked the U.N. Security Council Saturday to enforce a no-fly zone. It was the first time the league has endorsed military action aimed at an Arab nation.

The Security Council is expected to take up the issue this week, but the Arab League's request is unlikely to be enough to win support for the action, the Wall Street Journal reports. The United States and some European countries have expressed hesitation at the prospect of being pulled into a civil war in Africa.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to meet with rebel leaders Monday.

Fearful that Gaddafi's forces might continue their advance, international humanitarian organizations and news outlets moved their staff from Benghazi to Tobruq on the Egyptian border Sunday. If Gaddafi manages to capture Tobruq as well, he would cut off the rebel's supply route from Egypt and the possibility of an easy retreat.

"There was a lot of speculation: will he try to seal everybody in?" Cassandra Nelson of the aid group Mercy Corps told the Wall Street Journal.

The opposition is now bracing for a battle in Ajdabiya, the only major population center between Brega and the opposition city Benghazi. A rebel fighter told the AP that the town was preparing for a conflict there by evacuating doctors and the wounded and bringing in rebel fighters from other areas.

Opposition forces stacked ammunition boxes six deep in military barracks and positioned tanks as they prepared for the battle, the New York Times reported.

"The fate of Ajdabiya, an eastern town of 120,000 near the Mediterranean coast, may prove decisive in the most violent and chaotic of the uprisings that have upended the Arab world," it stated.

Gaddafi and his loyalists have shown increasing confidence as the momentum in the country has shifted and they have managed to retake towns controlled by rebels a week ago.

Army spokesman Milad Hussein told foreign journalists in the capital, Tripoli, that in addition to Brega, the government had full control of Zawiya, a town about 30 miles west of Tripoli, and the other strategic eastern oil-facility town of Ras Lanuf.

Concerning the center of the opposition forces, he said: "Benghazi doesn't deserve a full-scale military action. They are a group of rats and vermin and as soon as we go in, they will raise their hands and surrender."

-- Hanna Ingber Win