Libyan rebels flee as Moammar Gadhafi's forces fire at them on the front lines outside Bin Jawad, east of Sirte, on Tuesday.
Libyan rebels flee as Moammar Gadhafi's forces fire at them on the front lines outside Bin Jawad, east of Sirte, on Tuesday. Anja Niedringhaus/AP
A sweeping array of world powers — from the United States to the United Nations, from the Arab League to NATO — spoke from the same script Tuesday in forcefully calling for Libya's Moammar Gadhafi to step down. Some even hinted at secret talks on Gadhafi's exit.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary William Hague led the crisis talks in London between 40 countries and institutions, all seeking an endgame aimed at halting Gadhafi's bloody onslaught against Libya's people.
Although the NATO-led airstrikes on Gadhafi's forces that began March 19 aren't aimed at toppling him, dozens of nations agreed in the talks that Libya's future does not include the dictator at the helm.
- Delegates from dozens of nations met in London forcefully called for Moammar Gadhafi to step down.
- Rebels abandoned their push toward Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte in the face of regime shelling, retreating eastward first to Bin Jawad and then later to Ras Lanuf.
- Fighting continued in and around the city of Misurata. Three people reportedly died in tank attacks on residential areas.
- In an open letter to the international community, Gadhafi called international airstrikes a "monstrous assault" on the Libyan people and said it will pave the way for al-Qaida to turn North Africa into "a new Afghanistan."
- U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said the White House has "not ruled out" the possibility of arming the rebels.
"Gadhafi has lost the legitimacy to lead, so we believe he must go. We're working with the international community to try to achieve that outcome," Clinton told reporters.
The U.S. won't rule out a political settlement in Libya that would include a deal for Gadhafi to leave the country, Clinton said. She said it appears Gadhafi has made no decisions yet about his future, but she noted that several scenarios are "in play" as nations with ties to Gadhafi and a newly named U.N. envoy look for a way out.
Clinton spoke after meeting on the sidelines with Mahmoud Jibril, a representative of the Libyan opposition fighting Gadhafi. The two discussed political next steps, as they did two weeks ago during an initial meeting in Paris, aides said.
A senior U.S. official said Washington will soon send an envoy to Libya to deepen relations with leaders of the rebels.
Participants at the London conference — which included all the members of the coalition behind the military operation in Libya, as well as representatives from other countries — agreed to set up a contact group to work with the opposition on a transition to a new form of government after Gadhafi goes.
The rebels' Benghazi-based provisional government issued a statement to the delegates outlining its "aspirations for a modern free and united state, following the defeat of the illegal Gadhafi regime."
The statement called for a new constitution and a democratic Libya, as well as guarantees for the right to vote and free expression. Free Libya should "join the international community in rejecting and denouncing racism, discrimination and terrorism," it read.
"The most important thing about this vision is that it's a vision for a Libya which is constitutional, democratic, [a] civil country under rule of law," said Guma el-Gamaty, the council's UK coordinator.
Key members of the coalition have indicated they might be willing to allow Gadhafi to go into exile, without facing an international criminal court. El-Gamaty said the Libyan opposition would prefer that did not happen.
"The ideal is a fair trial within Libya," he said. "Now he is also facing a potential trial by the International Criminal Court. That is the ideal, because these crimes should not go unpunished."
Outside the summit, about 70 protesters held pro-Gadhafi placards, sounded bullhorns and led chants of "Hands off Libya!" One placard read: "We can resolve our problems without you."
The international community is divided on a course of action in Libya. Even nations that backed the internationally enforced no-fly zone are far from unanimous on what to do next.
Libya's rebels beat a panicked retreat from withering rocket and tank fire along their western front lines Tuesday, adding to speculation that they cannot stand against Gadhafi's troops without international intervention.
The battlefield reversal on the outskirts of Gadhafi's hometown, Sirte, came a day after President Obama pledged that no U.S. ground forces would be used in Libya and outlined a strategy to "hasten the day when Gadhafi leaves power."
In London, Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani suggested that the issue of ground troops could be revisited if the campaign of air and missile strikes fell short.
"We have to evaluate the airstrikes after a while to see if it's effective," he said at a news conference. "We are not inviting any military ground [troops] ... but we have to evaluate the situation because we cannot let the people suffer for so long, you know — we have to find a way to stop this bloodshed."
In response to a question from a journalist, Clinton said the Washington had "not made any decision about arming the rebels or providing any arms transfers," but that she had discussed with Libya's opposition "nonlethal assistance," including ways to meet the rebels' financial needs.
Asked about comments by NATO Supreme Allied Commander U.S. Adm. James Stavridis that intelligence showed the possible influence of al-Qaida or Hezbollah among the rebels, Clinton acknowledged that the U.S. doesn't know "as much as we would like to know and as much as we expect we will know" about them.
Obama later acknowledged Stavridis' comments on CBS, but said most of the opposition leaders U.S. officials have met "are professionals, lawyers, doctors — people who appear to be credible."
A Mad Dash Eastward
A U.N.-mandated no-fly zone and coalition airstrikes have helped rebel forces claw their way back from the brink of defeat by government forces and regain territory lost over the past week.
But in a scene reminiscent of last week, rebel volunteers ran when government forces intensified their bombardment near Sirte, making a mad dash for pickup trucks and other vehicles and speeding away from the front lines. The city, once thought to be impregnable, is the gateway to western Libya.
"Gadhafi's forces are firing from Wadi al-Ahmar ... [using] rockets, artillery and mortars," rebel fighter Adel Sirhani told The Associated Press, referring to a strategic valley outside Sirte. "It's very intense."
The rebels — who pleaded for international airstrikes that never came — pulled back about 90 miles east of Sirte to the hamlet of Bin Jawad. Later, the AP reported that Gadhafi's forces had driven the opposition fighters farther east, out of Bin Jawad to the oil port of Ras Lanuf. Cars and trucks driven by retreating rebels filled both lanes of the highway.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, reporting from Tripoli, said the hasty retreat "shows the limits of the rebels and the [NATO's] bombing campaign."
Bashir al-Maghrebi says his home in Ras Lanuf was damaged by artillery from Gadhafi's forces.
Bashir al-Maghrebi says his home in Ras Lanuf was damaged by artillery from Gadhafi's forces. Eric Westervelt/NPR
"The rebels are ill-trained. They have no command structure. They are ill-equipped," she said. "What has helped them advance so far is the airstrikes."
Bashir al-Maghrebi, 25, returned to Ras Lanuf to find that a Gadhafi artillery round had smashed into his home during the fighting. There's now a hole the size of a washing machine in the second floor back wall, the windows are all smashed out and a spider web of cracks has splintered what remains of his other walls.
"The Gadhafi army says it's coming to protect the civilian areas. But he's destroying every area," he said, adding "I'm numb, no more feelings. He's destroyed our feelings."
Maghrebi slammed Gadhafi for squandering Libya's oil wealth during his 42-year dictatorship.
"We're the richest country and the poorest people," he said.
Given the renewed fighting nearby, Maghrebi said he's heading back to a makeshift camp in the desert with his family where there are no amenities, but at least it's safe.
Despite claims by the provisional government in Benghazi that opposition forces are better organized and disciplined than at any time since the uprising began six weeks ago, "today's pullback was as chaotic as ever and the rebels seem to be sticking with their tactic of racing forward with little strategy or plan," NPR's Eric Westervelt reported from eastern Libya.
Sirte is dominated by members of the Libyan leader's Gadhadhfa tribe. But many people belonging to another large tribe, the Firjan, are believed to resent Gadhafi's rule, and rebels hope to encourage that tribe and others to help them.
Battles continued to rage in Misurata, Libya's third-largest city. Residents reported that three people in residential areas were killed in shelling by government tanks.
NPR's Garcia-Navarro, who was taken by government officials to Misurata on Monday, said the rebels appeared to be in control of most of the city, though the fighting was intense.
Gadhafi: Coalition Strikes Are 'Monstrous Assault'
The U.S. Navy, meanwhile, reported that two of its aircraft and a guided missile destroyer attacked a number of Libyan vessels that were "firing indiscriminately" at merchant ships in the port of Misurata, rendering them inoperable.
In an open letter to the international community, Gadhafi called for a halt to the "monstrous assault" on Libya and maintained that the rebels were supported by al-Qaida.
"What is happening now is providing a cover for al-Qaida through airstrikes and missiles to enable al-Qaida to control North Africa and turn it into a new Afghanistan," he said, accusing the international community of carrying out genocide against the Libyans.
Since the international bombing campaign began 10 days ago, Gadhafi's regime has insisted that coalition forces have overstepped their U.N. mandate by moving beyond a mission to simply protect civilians to one of directly helping the rebels by targeting loyalist forces on the ground. Russia and other countries have made similar complaints.
In Monday's address, Obama defended U.S.-led airstrikes on ground forces that he said were aimed squarely at protecting civilians from Gadhafi's forces.
"I said that America's role would be limited, that we would not put ground troops into Libya, that we would focus our unique capabilities on the front end of the operation, and that we would transfer responsibility to our allies and partners," Obama said. "Tonight, we are fulfilling that pledge."
The Pentagon said Tuesday that the U.S. cost of the military intervention in Libya so far came to $550 million.
About 60 percent of the spending, calculated through Monday, was "for munitions" — bombs and missiles, spokeswoman Cmdr. Kathleen Kesler said. The U.S. Navy has launched a total of 192 long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles — at $1 million to $1.5 million each — at targets in Libya as of Monday, she said. The U.S. has flown 983 sorties during the campaign: 370 bombing missions and the rest for surveillance and refueling.
With reporting from NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Tripoli, Eric Westervelt in eastern Libya, and Phil Reeves and Michele Kelemen in London. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.