Cease-fire unlikely in Libya's standoff

| Sunday, April 3, 2011

BENGHAZI, Libya — Western diplomats are trying to negotiate a cease-fire between pro- and anti-Gadhafi forces following a week of chaotic, seesaw battles.

An immediate halt to Libya's seven weeks of fighting seems unlikely, however, as both sides hold firm to opposing positions.

A rebel leader from Libya's government-held western half told the Tribune-Review of a growing "nightmare" among civilians there.

Meanwhile, NATO officials are investigating an airstrike that killed 13 rebels and wounded seven near the eastern oil town of Brega. The rebels reportedly fired into the air as a NATO warplane flew overhead.

A rebel spokesman described it as "friendly fire ... an unfortunate incident."

Rebels fighting to oust dictator Moammar Gadhafi "will not negotiate for anything else," said Mustafa Abdel Jalil, president of the opposition's provisional council, after meeting with a United Nations envoy.

Gadhafi spokesman Musa Ibrahim dismissed that demand as "mad."

Jalil said Gadhafi has never honored a cease-fire and has routinely attacked civilians. Those attacks provoked U.S. and NATO airstrikes on Gadhafi's army.

The U.N. envoy met in the capital, Tripoli, with Gadhafi officials, while rebel leaders met in the breakaway eastern half with French and British diplomats.

On another diplomatic front, the opposition may have found a way to raise badly needed cash.

Dr. Ali Tarhouni, who directs finances and economics for the rebel crisis-management team headed by University of Pittsburgh-educated Libyan Mahmoud Jibril, said the Persian Gulf state of Qatar agreed to sell oil under rebel control.

The oil money would be used for food, fuel and medical supplies, Tarhouni said.

The rebels store 1 million barrels of oil per week from eastern oilfields and, in time, will be able to produce up to 300,000 barrels per day, Tarhouni said. "The only delay is finding the vessels that will carry the oil," he said.

"We are in a tenuous position. We are not even close to meeting our needs. If it weren't for the spirit of the people, who knows what could happen?" he said.

Poorly armed but tenacious rebel fighters continue battling Gadhafi's better-equipped army near Brega. Western towns and cities, including Misrata and Zintan, remain under siege by Gadhafi's forces.

Fethi Baja, a political science professor who heads the rebel council's political committee, underscored the demand for Gadhafi's ouster, declaring: "We have this historical moment, and we don't want to lose it."

Baja said he ran afoul of Gadhafi's secret police in 2007 by writing newspaper articles promoting democracy. Fearing assassination attempts, he sent his two sons out of Libya and still does not sleep in his home.

Baja wrote the rebels' eight-point plan for Libya's future. It calls for a democratic state, separation of powers, free elections, a free press and respect for human rights.

"Gadhafi worked for the last 42 years to empty this country of civil society ... and destroyed the political elite," he said.

"We need help from America, from the British, to rebuild the country, our educational system ... (to) give us some advice on writing a constitution. It needs to be written in a way that people understand and love it."

Suleiman Fortia, a rebel council member from Misrata, told the Tribune-Review that conditions there are grim. "There is no drinking water, no electricity and no telecommunications for about 30 days now" while Gadhafi's army has besieged the city, he said.

"... It is a nightmare."

He said 400 people were killed, about 700 were wounded, and 900 remain missing there.

Fortia sailed 30 hours on a fishing boat from Misrata to Benghazi to report to the national council on battles in the west, where Gadhafi's grip is far stronger.

"All the families in Misrata are suffering from snipers on top of the buildings and tanks shooting ... on hospitals, schools, cars and roads," said Fortia, 56, an engineer.

He called for NATO airstrikes on the regime's tanks and for creation of "a safe corridor to the sea to get supplies in and to get the wounded out."

Fortia accused the Libyan army of targeting the city's port to block humanitarian aid; ships to evacuate the wounded were kept away for three days by tank, mortar and missile fire.

Nearly 6,000 Egyptian and 1,000 African workers are stranded at the port, he said.

Fortia described Misrata as desperate for food, fuel and medical supplies. "The daily casualties are adding more and more chaos to the situation," he said. "I buried my brother four days ago."

His father and another brother died in 1996, he said, when Gadhafi ordered 1,200 inmates at the Abu Salim prison to be massacred in retaliation for an earlier revolt.

Like other rebel leaders, Fortia insists that terrorists are not behind Libya's uprising. "The Libyan people are united under one umbrella, fighting for their freedom," he said. "There is no al-Qaida and no fundamentalist extremists. ... This is not like Iraq.

"This is the message we would like to get across to the American people."

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