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Libyan rebel forces dig in; talks with Gadhafi rejected

| Monday, Feb. 28, 2011

BENGHAZI, Libya -- Rebels in Libya's second-largest city put a civilian political face on their revolt as pro- and anti-government forces reportedly fought to control another city about 30 miles from Tripoli, the capital.

A British Royal Navy frigate sailed into port to evacuate Westerners. Frightened workers from developing countries languished nearby with little hope of rescue and some without shelter.

Rebels who seized eastern Libya in the past week announced the formation of a "national council." Its spokesman, Abdulhafeth Ghoga, rejected talks with Moammar Gadhafi's regime.

"What he has been doing, in terms of bloodshed and human-rights violations, there is no room for negotiations," he said.

The council is "completely against any foreign intervention," Ghoga said. He denied the country will split in two, as Gadhafi's son, Seif Al Islam, has warned.

Rebellious army forces "were behind the revolution of Feb. 17 from the start, and we are behind whatever they think is appropriate," he said.

Asked about post-Gadhafi elections, Ghoga called those "premature ... while we have a capital under siege."

With residents shouting "Free, free Libya," anti-government rebels who control Zawiya, a battle-scarred city nearest to the capital, deployed tanks and anti-aircraft weapons Sunday, bracing for an attack by troops loyal to Gadhafi.

Tripoli remains in Gadhafi's hands for now, with widespread shooting reported on the streets and most citizens in hiding. State banks there began handing out the equivalent of $400 per family in a bid to shore up public loyalty.

"The Libyan people are fully behind me," Gadhafi defiantly told Serbian TV, even as about half of the country was turning against him and world leaders moved to isolate him. "A small group (of rebels) is surrounded ... and it will be dealt with."

The United States, Britain and the U.N. Security Council all slapped sanctions on Libya this weekend, and President Obama said it is time for Gadhafi to go.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United States was "reaching out to many different Libyans who are attempting to organize in the east and as the revolution moves westward there as well." Two U.S. senators said Washington should recognize and arm a provisional government in rebel-held areas of eastern Libya and impose a no-fly zone over the area -- enforced by U.S. warplanes -- to stop attacks by the regime.

The British frigate HMS Cumberland sailed into one of Benghazi's two ports yesterday to evacuate Westerners to the island of Malta.

As the wind rose and rain fell, evacuees gathered in a port warehouse for what British Lt. Cmdr. James Farrant said should be an 18-hour crossing of the Mediterranean.

James Douglas Peace, who works for an oil company in southern Libya, said he had no problem reaching Benghazi.

"If you didn't watch the television, you wouldn't know anything was happening," he said, standing in line. "We have been advised by the British government to leave, but I will be back."

On the other side of the port, about 2,000 workers from developing countries remained stranded.

"For four days I stay here," Sheshell Dash, a Bangladeshi working on a Chinese-run housing project, said in broken English as scores of his countrymen crowded around.

"My mother, father, wife crying. Why no ship comes?"

Ahmed Zahid, 31, said he fled violence in Pakistani Kashmir to work here for a Turkish firm. "Now we are here, and there is war here. Where will we go• We have no options."

Alix Mibratu, 24, of Eritrea said, "We have been working in a Libyan company, and the management just left." He said many workers from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia await rescue, adding: "We don't know where to go."

Some of the foreign workers wanted a reporter to see their living conditions -- an overflowing barracks of small rooms, men sleeping side-by-side on the floor. Others slept outside in the rain and cold.

Signs appeared in Benghazi, urging people to help improve their country.

"Do you want to remain free?" asked one. It encouraged Libyans to hand over weapons to a local mosque, to donate blood and not to loot.

Yet, some Libyans worry about the impact if the revolt lasts much longer.

"If Gadhafi stays for two weeks, we will suffer a lot," said Maher El Bejou, 48, an Emirates Airlines pilot who returned here to join the uprising. "We will need food and fuel. What happens when our stocks run out?"

In a burned-out court building turned into a press center, makeshift electrical wires were strung from room to room. Cartoons mocking Gadhafi hung on walls.

Walid Al Zayani, 38, works there producing videos and television graphics reporting on the rebellion. Like many here, he said he wants a constitution to be enacted.

"I want to raise up Libya and make it a very civilized country," he said. "... (We) are all united in this."

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