Forces loyal to Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi are in retreat from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi after two nights of sustained bombing by coalition forces.
Following the UN Security Council’s resolution authorising military intervention in Libya, France, the UK and the US have attacked targets across the country in an effort to dismantle Gaddafi’s abilility to contest a no fly zone, and prevent a retalitatory attack on Benghazi.
The first night after the collapse of a short-lived ceasefire, US vessels stationed off Libya fired 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles into the gulf nation destroying much of its ability to fight back against NATO aircraft.
French aircraft then destroyed a column of Gaddafi’s tanks converging just 40 miles from Benghazi, which had steadily pushed the rebels back across the country after their initial surge caught the regime off-guard.
“In their panic, many of the soldiers had left engines running in their tanks and trucks as they fled across fields,” reported Kim Sengupta for the Independent. “Some raided farmhouses on the way to swap their uniforms for civilian clothes. But others did not make it, their corpses burning with their vehicles or torn apart by spraying shrapnel as they ran to get away.”
The Guardian reported rebel claims that Gaddafi was now forcing demoralised soldiers to fight by handcuffing them to their tanks, and forcing them to fly planes without parachutes.
“We found 13 men wearing the military uniform of Gaddafi,” the Guardian reported rebel spokeperson Khaled al-Sayeh as saying.
“Some were handcuffed and we believe they were executed possibly for defying orders.”
The AFP has meanwhile reported that the US is now using satellitse to monitor 9.5 tonnes of mustard gas Gaddafi has stored in the Libyan desert, in an effort to prevent a potential terror attack.
“We believe that it’s secure,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel David Lapan told AFP. “Even if not weaponised, there’s still a threat, but it’s a smaller threat than if it is weaponised.”
Air strikes last night destroyed Gaddafi’s residence in Tripoli and a building the coalition claimed was Gaddafi’s command and control centre. Gaddafi has responded to the attacks by claiming on state television that he was prepared for a “long war”.
“We will not leave our land and we will liberate it,” he said, over the telephone.
“America, France, or Britain, the Christians that are in a pact against us today, they will not enjoy our oil,” he claimed. “We do not have to retreat from the battlefield because we are defending our land and our dignity.”
Despite the coalition’s vastly superior firepower, the moral complexity of the intervention is fast rising. In his justification for war to British Parliament, UK Prime Minister David Cameron said intervention “is right because we believe we should not stand aside while this dictator murders his own people.”
However media present in the capital Tripoli were reporting that Gaddafi was loading civilian ‘human shields’ into military infrastructure across the city, including women and children.
Gaddafi’s strategy has resulted in wavering support from the 22 member Arab League, when Secretary-General Amr Moussa condemned “the bombardment of civilians”.
The Arab League had pressed for a no-fly zone in a rare authorisation of force against one of their own member states – a deciding factor for intervention, according to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – however the Pentagon had emphasised even a no-fly zone would require destroying Gaddafi’s ability to fight back.
Veteran war correspondent Robert Fisk, writing for the UK’s Independent newspaper, observed that the West had largely ignored the fact that the powerful tribal group leading the rebellion in Libya, the Senoussi, were overthrown in 1969 when Gaddafi deposed their King Idris.
“Now let’s suppose they get to Tripoli. Are they going to be welcomed there? Yes, there were protests in the capital,” Fisk wrote, “but many of those brave demonstrators themselves originally came from Benghazi. What will Gaddafi’s supporters do? ‘Melt away’? Suddenly find that they hated Gaddafi after all and join the revolution? Or continue the civil war? The red, black and green ‘rebel’ flag – the old flag of pre-revolutionary Libya – is in fact the Idris flag, a Senoussi flag.”
President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed, who called for UN peacekeeper intervention in Libya at the start of the demonstrations, welcomed the international coalition’s enforcement of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973.
“The Maldives reiterates its desire to see a swift end to Gaddafi’s regime and hopes that the people of Libya will soon enjoy fundamental human rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” the President’s Office said in a statement.