BENGHAZI, Libya – In a stark rebuke to one of its members, the Arab League urged the United Nations on Saturday to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.
The move came even as forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi advanced eastward toward the strategic city of Port Brega in an intensifying onslaught against outgunned rebels, who retreated from airstrikes and rocket barrages.
The Libyan army has made substantial gains in recent attacks, driving insurgents from the country’s largest petrochemical refinery near Uqaylah on Saturday and routing them earlier from Ras Lanouf, about 25 miles west, and Zawiya in the west of the country. The opposition has relinquished at least 60 miles of coastal territory in six days
The losses were tactical and psychological setbacks for the rebels, who after a string of victories found that they lacked the firepower and training to counter strong government offensives in their fight to end Gadhafi’s four decades of rule.
“We can defeat them, no problem, except for the airplanes. We have nothing to fight the airplanes,” said Osama Ali, 27, a bespectacled bank clerk armed with an assault rifle at a checkpoint at Uqaylah, 25 miles west of Port Brega.
The fighters on that desolate stretch have stacked ammunition and food in anticipation of a government assault. For the first time in the three-week conflict, they took the precaution of digging some of their antiaircraft batteries into protective dirt berms.
Gadhafi’s forces have seized the momentum just seven days after rebels stormed Ras Lanouf and were poised to sweep west toward the capital of Tripoli. The growing pressure on Port Brega suggests that government soldiers are systematically edging from one rebel base to another as they advance along the North African coast closer to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
Opposition figures in the east said insurgents were not in danger of defeat. They conceded, however, that Gadhafi’s soldiers and superior weapons have taken their toll on a poorly trained rebel outfit. But officials said Libyan army officers who defected from the government are increasingly in control of rebel strategy.
That did not appear to be the case on the ground. Gadhafi’s government was so confident that Ras Lanouf was securely in its hands that it flew international journalists from Tripoli into the oil city. Under close escort by government minders and security officers, the journalists were given a tour of the state-owned oil company’s comfortable residential neighborhoods.
The rebel victory in Ras Lanouf one week ago was regarded by the opposition as key to advancing toward Tripoli. The quick shift in fortunes had officials in the east attempting to spin the retreat as a calculated move.
“It was a tactical withdrawal,” said Gheriani. “He’s (Gadhafi) almost flattened it. There’s nothing heroic about sitting in a town that’s getting bombed.”
Lightly armed rebel fighters retreated in pickup trucks and sedans roughly 10 to 20 miles east from the positions they had held as recently as Friday. At the sound of an approaching warplane, rebel fighters at the western checkpoint 12 miles west of Uqaylah screamed “tayara!” (plane!) and “intishero!” (disperse!). A few minutes later, government warplanes circled overhead.
“We’re not afraid to fight,” said Hamid Ramadan, 28, dressed in jeans and a sports shirt. “We’re not afraid of the planes, really, but it’s just that …”
He raised an assault rifle. “This can shoot birds, not planes,” he said.
The no-fly zone decision by the 22-member Arab League, meeting in Cairo on Saturday, was a political defeat for Gadhafi, who in recent years has exasperated leaders across North Africa and the Middle East.
President Barack Obama has said such a step would be crucial toward a possible international military operation to ground Gadhafi’s warplanes, and a statement by the White House on Saturday said the league’s “welcome” action “strengthens the international pressure” against Gadhafi.
In a further affront to the eccentric Libyan autocrat, the league decided to begin talks with rebel council based in Benghazi.