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Libyan rebels on the run, West divided

11 marca, 2011

Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi\'s forces were in control of the oil town of Ras Lanuf Friday, as rebels on the run appealed for arms and divided Western powers mulled military intervention.

Medics in contact with anti-regime fighters in the eastern town said there were still pockets of resistance Friday but that government forces were in control after driving back the rebels the previous day in a hail of shells.

"At the moment it\'s 10 dead and dozens injured from Thursday\'s fighting, and that\'s likely to rise significantly. We believe there are many more bodies in the area," Doctor Salem Langhi told AFP from the frontline town of Brega.

"Ambulances have not been allowed to go there to Ras Lanuf, the army is blocking the road," he said, referring to Kadhafi\'s loyalist force.

"We have been told by the rebel fighters that there are still pockets of resistance in Ras Lanuf, and there is still some fighting, but as of now the army is in control of the area," Langhi said.

"They have total supremacy. They have been firing with ships and they have control of the air," he said, confirming reports from rebel commanders in Benghazi of a major offensive from the Tripoli regime.

AFP journalists in the town on Thursday saw rebel forces in full retreat and army tanks advancing five kilometres (three miles) east of the city. The rebels had taken the town a week ago.

Late Thursday, Kadhafi\'s son Seif al-Islam said victory was in sight against the rebels fighting his father\'s regime.

"We\'re coming," he told a meeting of young supporters, referring to the advance of government forces towards the eastern rebel bastion of Benghazi, Libya\'s second city.

Medics say 400 people have died and 2,000 more been wounded in eastern Libya since February 17.

And the United Nations said more than 250,000 people had now fled the fighting in Libya since the revolt against Kadhafi started.

Kadhafi\'s forces on Wednesday captured Zawiyah, the site of major oil installations 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Tripoli, using artillery and tanks to drive the rebels from the city after several days\' fighting.

With its fighters in retreat, the opposition appealed to the international community to intervene.

"The Libyans are being cleansed by Kadhafi\'s air force," Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of Libya\'s rebel national Council, told the BBC World Service.

"We asked for a no-fly zone to be imposed from day one," he added.

"We also want a sea embargo and we urgently need some arms and we also need humanitarian assistance and medicines to be sent to the cities besieged by Kadhafi troops."

One source close to French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he would propose to his European Union partners limited air strikes against Kadhafi loyalists.

Britain and France, in a joint letter to EU president Herman Van Rompuy, called on the European Union to recognise the country\'s rebel national council.

But a two-day meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels, which started Thursday, agreed only to send more ships towards Libya\'s coast, delaying a decision on a no-fly zone until the United Nations had approved it.

The EU\'s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will fly to Cairo to meet Arab League leader Amr Mussa, where the League\'s foreign ministers meet this weekend to discuss a no-fly zone over Libya.

"The Arab world has to lead," she said.

Italy and Germany expressed surprise at France\'s recognition of the Libya\'s opposition council -- and Germany\'s Chancellor Angela Merkel made clear her scepticism over any military action.

In Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday that proposals for a no-fly zone over Libya would be presented to NATO next Tuesday.

But she stressed that any final decision had to be taken by the United Nations. Clinton will travel to the Middle East next week and meet senior anti-Kadhafi figures.

Seif\'s prediction that his father\'s forces were set to beat the rebels got support from America\'s top spy James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) who suggested that Kadhafi\'s forces would eventually prevail.

National Security Adviser Tom Donilon dismissed Clapper\'s remarks as based on a "static and one-dimensional assessment".

But Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency suggested that the momentum in the conflict might have "started to shift" towards Kadhafi.

Washington meanwhile unblocked another $17 million to help refugees who fled unrest in Libya, taking the total earmarked so far to $47 million, US aid officials said Thursday.

The United States also said it would soon send civilian humanitarian aid teams into eastern Libya but made it clear that this should not be seen as any kind of military intervention.

The Dutch defence ministry meanwhile confirmed early Friday that three of its soldiers held by the Libyans after a botched attempt to rescue civilians, had been freed and were heading home.

Arab states in the Gulf on Thursday denounced Kadhafi\'s regime and called on the Arab league to reach out to the opposition in a statement issued after a GCC foreign ministers\' meeting in the Saudi capital Riyadh.

The Gulf Cooperation Council -- Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates -- called on Arab League foreign ministers to take the necessary steps "to stop the bloodshed."

But the African Union on Friday rejected military intervention in Libya to stop a crackdown on regime opponents, peace and security commissioner Ramtane Lamamra said.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Saudi police shot and wounded three Shiite protesters in the oil-rich Eastern Province on Thursday while trying to disperse a protest calling for the release of prisoners, a witness told AFP.

The incident came as the OPEC linchpin braced for street protests on Friday after calls on Facebook and Twitter.

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh pledged to devolve power to parliament after months of violent protests, but the opposition rejected the offer as coming too late.