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Libya warns over air, sea traffic as UN action looms

17 marca, 2011

Libya warned Thursday it could target all Mediterranean air and sea traffic in the case of foreign military intervention, as world powers edged towards tough measures aimed at shutting down Moamer Kadhafi\'s military machine.

"Any military operation against Libya will expose all air and maritime traffic in the Mediterranean to danger," the official Jana news agency quoted Libya\'s defence ministry spokesman as saying.

"And any civilian or military moving traffic will be the target of a Libyan counter-offensive."

The warning came ahead of a UN Security Council vote in New York on a Libya resolution set for 6:00 pm (2200 GMT), with the draft calling for "all necessary measures" against forces loyal to Kadhafi, a diplomat at the United Nations said.

Libya\'s military had said earlier it would halt operations from Sunday to allow rebels to lay down their arms, softening repeated threats by Kadhafi to crush them.

With the urgent talks at the United Nations and warnings of an imminent bloodbath in the oil-rich North African nation, insurgents claimed they had shot down warplanes trying to bomb their Benghazi bastion and disputed claims of territorial gains by Kadhafi forces.

Benghazi, a city of more than a million people, appeared calm Thursday evening, with shops open. An AFP reporter said rebels had reinforced some checkpoints on the Tobruk-Benghazi road with dug-in tanks.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Tunisia that the UN draft resolution must authorise more action against Libya, "including a no-fly zone."

Diplomats at the Security Council said a draft being negotiated by major powers calls for all necessary measures, short of an occupation, to protect civilians.

"That is the draft resolution now, but it could still change," said a Western diplomat.

The French foreign ministry said the draft "widens the scope of sanctions and opens way to the use of necessary means to stop the Kadhafi offensive."

In Tripoli, Jana said "the provisional general committee (ministry) of defence has decided to halt military operations against the armed terrorist bands from midnight on Sunday (2200 GMT) ... to give (them) a chance to lay down their arms and benefit from a general amnesty."

The report came before the threat to target Mediterranean maritime and air traffic in the event of international military intervention.

The latest developments came amid claims and counter-claims about the progress of fighting, which could not be independently confirmed.

State television said loyalists were on the outskirts of Benghazi, the major Mediterranean city in the east and seat of the month-old rebellion against Kadhafi\'s iron-fisted four-decade rule.

Allibya television said "the town of Zuwaytinah is under control (of loyalists) and armed forces are on the outskirts of Benghazi."

"The Kadhafi forces tried to carry out an air raid on the city but our anti-aircraft defences repulsed the offensive and two planes were shot down," a the spokesman told AFP by telephone.

A doctor in Benghazi told AFP by phone that only one plane was shot down, adding that "morale is high."

Libyan television also said loyalists had overrun the rebel bastion of Misrata, 200 kilometres (125 miles) east of Tripoli, a day after Kadhafi promised a "decisive battle" there.

That was denied by a rebel spokesman in Misrata.

"We still control the city, even its outskirts. Kadhafi is mobilising his forces a few kilometres away," the spokesman said by phone.

The spokesman said 18 people, including three civilians, were "martyred" in fierce fighting on Wednesday and that "we inflicted huge losses to the Kadhafi forces, including 60 people killed."

And a witness in the western town of Zintan said rebel fighters there were bracing for an attack.

On Tuesday, state television said the army would soon move against Benghazi, and on Wednesday, Kadhafi\'s son Seif al-Islam predicted it would all be over on Friday.

Early Thursday evening, Libyan state television said Kadhafi would address the people of the city.

In an interview with Russia Today television broadcast, he said Benghazi will fall "without our use of military force" as local residents will themselves chase out the "bandits."

On the diplomatic front, with major powers sharply divided over what to do about Kadhafi, France said that it, Britain and Lebanon had tabled a draft Security Council resolution to use "all necessary means."

The positions of other key players, particularly hold-outs China, Germany and Russia, was unclear.

US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns called on Thursday for the Security Council to "quickly" produce a serious resolution on Libya, including a no-fly zone.

He also said there is "a very real danger that if Kadhafi is successful on the ground" there is a danger of him "returning to terrorism and violent extremism."

And NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned that "time is running out."

"If Kadhafi prevails it will send a clear signal that violence pays. That would be unacceptable from a humanitarian and democratic perspective," Rasmussen said on his Facebook page.

"But time is running out. The sooner the United Nations can reach an agreement the better," he said. "NATO stands ready to protect the civilian population if there is a demonstrable need, clear legal basis and strong regional support."

As for Germany, which currently sits on the Security Council and is a key NATO member, Foreign Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said on Wednesday "we have no wish to and we cannot take sides in a north African civil war."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has requested more information from Arab states, who have called for a no-fly zone, about how it would be policed.

And China, which like Russia wields a veto on the Security Council and is this months\'s president of the body, has also expressed reservations about intervention.

Chinese Ambassador Li Baodong said "we are going to take action very quickly. I urged all the delegations to get instructions from their capitals as early as possible.

As uncertainty reigned over which way the tide will turn, aid agencies on Egypt\'s border with Libya were bracing for an onslaught of refugees if Kadhafi prevails.

"If Benghazi is taken, we are expecting 40,000 to 100,000 people, and we are not ready," said Andrea Oess, of Swiss Humanitarian Aid.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Bahrain rounded up dissidents Thursday as it came under mounting diplomatic pressure to end a bloody crackdown on Shiite-led protesters which has alarmed its ally the United States and infuriated Iran.

Five hardline Shiite activists and one Sunni were arrested during the night, a parliamentarian from the Shiite opposition alliance said, after a day of violence that left five dead in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.