Arabs meet on Libya as Gaddafi pressure mounts

Cairo – The Arab League was to hold key talks on the conflict in member state Libya today, predicted to back a no-fly zone over the country to ramp up the pressure on strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

Secretary General Amr Mussa called for a no-fly zone and said he wants the pan-Arab organisation to play a role in imposing it, in an interview published today.

“The United Nations, the Arab League, the African Union, the Europeans – everyone should participate,” Mussa told German weekly Der Spiegel.

“I am talking about a humanitarian action. It consists, with a no-fly zone, of supporting the Libyan people in their fight for freedom against a regime that is more and more disdainful.”

Mussa said Gaddafi was showing a lack of the “awareness that presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt demonstrated by resigning” and predicted more revolts in the Arab world.

Top officials in the Arab League said two envoys from Tripoli would be excluded from the meeting, held as Gaddafi’s forces step up their attacks on rebels.

“No Libyans will attend the meeting based on the decision of the Arab League on March 2 to suspend Libya from meetings,” Hisham Youssef, Mussa’s chief of staff, said.

Foreign ministers and representatives of the 22-member bloc would discuss “the developments of the situation in Libya to find ways to end the bloodshed in Libya,” Youssef said.

The foreign minister of European Union chair Hungary, Janos Martonyi, said Friday that “the expectation is that they will support a no-fly zone under some conditions.”

“The best thing I think would be that a concerted action would be planned and implemented with the countries of the Arab League,” he added.

EU leaders agreed at an emergency summit Friday to talk to Gaddafi’s opponents and protect Libyan civilians “by all necessary means” while stopping short of outright military threat.

They demanded Gaddafi “relinquish power immediately” and deemed the opposition council based in the eastern city of Benghazi “a political interlocutor”.

However, there was no mention of calls from Britain and France for a no-fly zone, and strident demands from French President Nicolas Sarkozy for “targeted action” against Gaddafi went unheeded.

A UN mission was also due in Libya on Saturday to evaluate the country’s humanitarian needs, Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaaim said in Tripoli.

He said the mission would tour hospitals to check on food and medicine supplies, adding that six months’ supplies of both were in stock.

Kaaim made no mention of the arrival of former Jordanian foreign minister Abdul Ilah Khatib, who is being dispatched by United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon to raise international concerns about Gaddafi’s deadly crackdown on protests.

Khatib, due in Tripoli early next week, would put across to the regime “in no uncertain terms the concerns of the United Nations and the international community,” Ban told reporters in New York.

The envoy would have a political role in trying to end the conflict but also to try to open up humanitarian access to the Libyan population, Ban said.

Khatib will be accompanied by senior UN humanitarian officials, UN political advisers and aides to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

US President Barack Obama yesterday the world was “tightening the noose” on Gaddafi, but admitted he was “concerned” the Libyan strongman could thwart rebels battling to oust him.

Obama announced he would appoint an envoy to Libyan opposition forces as part of a bid to “change the balance” of the military situation in Libya, and warned the world had an obligation to avoid a massacre.

The president added he was gauging support with regional powers for a no-fly zone, which Washington has so far resisted.

The European Union also stressed the need for “a clear legal basis and support from the region“, reflecting divisions over the advisability of military intervention.

The EU statement also called for an urgent summit on the crisis grouping the EU, the Arab League and the African Union, which on Friday rejected military intervention.

“We’re going to have to continue to apply pressure,” Obama said, as the US Treasury Department hit another nine Gaddafi associates with sanctions, including his wife Safia Farkash and his defence minister.

Libya’s former ambassador to the UN, Abdel Rahman Shalgam, said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would meet Mahmud Jibril, the Libyan opposition national council’s foreign affairs chief, in Paris on Monday.

In Libya itself, however, Gaddafi’s warplanes bombed rebel fighters as his forces tried to press the initiative won in recent victories.

Rebels said fighting had flared again in the key eastern oil hub and frontline town of Ras Lanuf, after most of them were driven out in a fierce battle on Thursday after holding it for a week.

In the western city of Zawhiya, Gaddafi’s troops fired in the air yesterday to celebrate the capture of the rebel stronghold, which put up a fierce two-week resistance.

The country’s oil chief Shukri Ghanem told AFP that operations had resumed at a key refinery in Zawiyah which supplies the capital and western Libya.

But in eastern, rebel-held Benghazi, up to 10 000 people poured into the streets on Friday in a carnival-like atmosphere, calling for Gaddafi to go and praying for victory.

Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the rebel national council, called on Thursday for both a no-fly zone and a sea embargo, as well as weapons and medical aid for the cities threatened by Gaddafi’s troops.

In Tripoli, Kaaim said Libya had suspended diplomatic relations with France after Paris recognised the national council a day earlier. 

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