The United Nations and the European Union are dispatching fact-finding missions to the north African nation, where reports by residents of attacks on civilians by security forces have triggered a war crimes probe and provoked global outrage.
The resilience of Muammar Gaddafi’s troops in the face of protests which started in mid-February and their ability to counter-attack on a key coastal road has raised the prospect that this OPEC nation is heading for months of bloodshed.
“It’s clear the government feels a sense of momentum on its side,” said military analyst Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute.
“Government forces have more mobility than the rebels thanks to airlift and a decent amount of road transport.
“That’s blunted by the fact that we are seeing extremely poor fighting skills by government forces, and reasonably competent fighting by the rebels.”
The rebels have called for U.N.-backed air strikes against what they say are African mercenaries used by Gaddafi to suppress an uprising against his 41-year-old strongman rule.
The government says it is fighting against al Qaeda terrorists and maintains that its security forces have targeted only armed individuals attacking state institutions and depots.
Witnesses said government forces advanced on the rebel-held oil port of Ras Lanuf 600 km (400 miles) east of Tripoli in a counter-attack that forced residents to flee and rebels to hide their weapons in the desert.
The army was moving down the strategic Mediterranean coastal road east of the recaptured town of Bin Jawad, heading towards Ras Lanuf which is about 60 km (40 miles) away and which has a major oil complex, witnesses told Reuters.
“I went to Bin Jawad and about 20 km (13 miles) beforehand I saw Gaddafi forces, a large truck and army vehicles, and a fighter jet, they were coming slowly in this direction,” Ahmed al-Araibi, a driver, told Reuters.
“I saw army trucks ahead, I was about 20 km away (from Bin Jawad),” said Khalifa Saad, another driver. While another witness said there were several trucks heading to Ras Lanuf.
Residents of Ras Lanuf, fearing assault by army forces, were leaving in cars laden with belongings on Monday and rebels said they had moved weapons into the desert for safekeeping.
As the rival combatants prepared to resume battle, the authorities launched an appeal to the rebels in the east for dialogue, in the clearest overture yet to their opponents.
Jadallah Azous Al-Talhi, a Libyan prime minister in the 1980s who is originally from eastern Libya, appeared on state television reading an address to elders in Benghazi.
He asked them to “give a chance to national dialogue to resolve this crisis, to help stop the bloodshed, and not give a chance to foreigners to come and capture our country again.” Reuters