Tripoli – Libya declared an immediate ceasefire and promised to stop military operations today in a bid to fend off international military intervention after the UN authorised a no-fly zone and “all necessary measures” to prevent the regime from striking its own people.
The announcement by Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa followed a fierce attack by Gaddafi’s forces against Misrata, the last rebel-held city in the western half of the country. A doctor said at least six people were killed.
The UN Security Council resolution, which was passed late yesterday after weeks of deliberation, set the stage for airstrikes, a no-fly zone and other military measures short of a ground invasion.
Britain announced that it would send fighter jets and France was making plans to deploy planes, but the US had yet to announce what its role would be. Nato also held an emergency meeting.
With the international community mobilising, Koussa said the government would cease fire in line with the resolution, although he criticised the authorisation of international military action, calling it a violation of Libya’s sovereignty.
“The government is opening channels for true, serious dialogue with all parties,” he said during a news conference in Tripoli, the capital.
The attack on Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, came as the rebels were on the defensive in their eastern stronghold after Gaddafi vowed to launch a final assault and crush the nearly 5-week-old rebellion against him.
The opposition expressed hope the UN resolution would help turn the tide in their favour after days of fierce fighting.
“We think Gaddafi’s forces will not advance against us. Our morale is very high now. I think we have the upper hand,” Colonel Salah Osman, a former army officer who defected to the rebel side, said. He was speaking at a checkpoint near the eastern town of Sultan.
The Western powers faced pressure to act urgently after weeks spent deliberation over what to do about Gaddafi as his regime gained momentum. The US has positioned a host of forces and ships in the region, including submarines and destroyers and amphibious assault and landing ships with some 400 Marines aboard. It also could provide a range of surveillance assets.
In an interview with Portuguese television broadcast just before the UN vote, Gaddafi pledged to respond harshly to U.N.-sponsored attacks. “If the world is crazy,” he said, “We will be crazy, too.”
The Libyan government closed its airspace to all traffic Friday, according to Europe’s air traffic control agency, Eurocontrol.
Government tanks rolled into Misrata, 200km southeast of Tripoli, early today, shelling houses, hospitals and a mosque for several hours before pulling back to the city’s outskirts, witnesses said. At least six people were killed, raising the total death toll in two days of fighting to nine, a local doctor said.
Misrata is the last rebel holdout in the western half of the country after Gaddafi recaptured a string of other cities that had fallen to the opposition early in the uprising that began on February 15. Its fall would leave the country largely divided, with the rebels bottled up in the east near the border with Egypt.
The city has been under a punishing blockade that has prevented aid ships from delivering medicine and other supplies, the doctor said.
“They haven’t stopped shelling us for a week – we sleep to shelling, and wake up to shelling. They are targeting houses and hospitals,” he said, adding the hospital had been overwhelmed.
“We have had to perform surgeries in the hallways using the light from our cell phones to see what we’re doing. We are also using some clinics around the town, some only have 60 beds, which isn’t enough,” he said.
Another doctor claimed Gaddafi’s forces had surrounded some neighbourhoods and were shooting at people who ventured out of their homes. “Militias used two ambulances to jump out of and shoot at innocent people indiscriminately,” he said.
The situation appeared to be calm in Benghazi.
Colonel Osman said Gaddafi’s forces had surrounded the nearby city of Ajdabiya, but rebels remained inside.
The shift toward international action reflected dramatic change on the ground in Libya in the past week. The rebels, once confident, found themselves in danger of being crushed by an overpowering pro-Gaddafi force using rockets, artillery, tanks, warplanes. That force has advanced along the Mediterranean coast aiming to recapture the rebel-held eastern half of Libya.
Gaddafi troops encircled the city of Ajdabiya, the first in the path of their march, but also had some troops positioned beyond it toward Benghazi, the second largest Libyan city, with a population of about 700 000.
A large crowd in Benghazi was watching the vote on an outdoor TV projection and burst into cheers, with green and red fireworks exploding overhead. In Tobruk, east of Benghazi, happy Libyans fired weapons in the air to celebrate the vote.
Libya’s unrest began in Benghazi and spread east to Tripoli. Like others in the Mideast, the uprising started with popular demonstrations against Gaddafi, rejecting his 41 years of despotic and often brutal rule. The tone quickly changed after Gaddafi’s security in Tripoli forcefully put down the gatherings there.
Soon rebel forces began arming themselves, quickly taking control of the country’s east centred on Benghazi. Some Libyan army units joined the rebels, providing them with some firepower, but much less than Gaddafi’s remaining forces.
There are no reliable death tolls. Rebels say more than 1 000 people have been killed in a month of fighting, while Gaddafi claims the toll is only 150.