BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Libya’s rebel leadership made an impassioned plea on Wednesday for the international community to impose a no-fly zone to ground Muammar Gaddafi’s warplanes and halt the daily death toll.
From his Tripoli stronghold in the west, Gaddafi said on Wednesday that the Libyan people would take up arms if a no-fly zone was enforced as this would prove that Western powers want “to take control of Libya and to steal their oil.”
Rebels on the frontline between the rebel-controlled east and Gaddafi’s forces in the west are increasingly frustrated at the failure of Washington and the West to act. Rebels constantly fire off machine guns at attacking warplanes.
“They had a no-fly zone in Iraq. Why is Gaddafi their darling and Saddam Hussein was not?” volunteer Naji Saleh told Reuters near the oil town of Ras Lanuf, referring to the air exclusion zone imposed on Iraq for more than a decade.
The rebel leadership in the eastern city of Benghazi said their representatives were in touch with foreign capitals about the imposition of a no-fly zone.
“We are concentrating our diplomatic efforts and working hard. But as always, they (foreign powers) are reluctant. One day we think they will take action soon ...,” said Iman Bugaigis, a media officer with the rebel February 17 coalition.
The administration of President Barack Obama has been criticised for being too cautious about a no-fly zone, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said any such zone must have international backing and not be a U.S.-led effort.
Bugaigis said Gaddafi had his military priorities.
“To me it seems it is vital for Gaddafi to gain (the western town of) Zawiyah, whatever the price, as he will not allow Tripoli to be surrounded and cut off from the borders of both east and west,” Bugaigis told Reuters.
Asked if pro-Gaddafi forces would push east if they secured Zawiyah, Bugaigis said: “We know that.”
She said: “This is why there are diplomatic efforts going on, and on the ground also. But we know the forces are unequal. This is why we want at least the no-fly zone but it is taking all this time. It is incredible. Hundreds are dying every day and they don’t want to take any action.”
Reinforcing the message that the international community must act soon, Bugaigis said: “Where are the human rights? I can’t understand these double standards. We are defending ourselves. This is an emergency. He is now declared an international criminal so exceptional efforts are required.”
Rebel fighters were buoyed by three victories as they stormed west after forcing Gaddafi forces to flee the city of Benghazi mid-February, but the push to take the leader’s hometown of Sirte was stopped in its tracks by planes and tanks.
Other bombing runs and a withering bombardment of Zawiyah have convinced the Benghazi leadership of the need to ground Gaddafi’s aircraft and prevent him moving troops by air to remove the military advantage of air supremacy.
“We already prevailed and we will complete our victory when we are afforded a no-fly zone,” Hafiz Ghoga, spokesman for the rebel National Libyan Council, said in Benghazi on Tuesday, adding: “If there was also action to stop him (Gaddafi) from recruiting mercenaries, his end would come within hours.”
On the front line in the east, fighters have chanted: “Where is Obama! We want a no-fly zone!”
But the head of the rebel Libyan National Council, ex-Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil, has also made clear that the body does not want foreign troops on Libyan soil as there are enough local forces to liberate Libya.
“Our people have the numbers and the determination to liberate all of Libya, but we will ask for air strikes to help us do this in the shortest possible time,” he said.
Rebel sensitivity about foreign forces was highlighted by their arrest and detention of a British “diplomatic team,” that included members of the elite SAS army regiment, who landed by helicopter near Benghazi at night.
The team was swiftly released after the British government explained there had been a misunderstanding over the mission which was in fact a fact-finding trip, but their detention sent a strong message that foreign ground forces were not welcome.
So far, rebels have been careful to accuse foreign mercenaries of fighting for Gaddafi, and are keen to highlight national unity and support for their cause, counting on this rallying call to turn Libyans against Gaddafi.
The Libyan leader has blamed drug-addled teenagers brainwashed by al Qaeda for an uprising deigned to hand the nation’s oil wealth back to colonial powers.
Reporting by Tom Pfeiffer in Benghazi; Writing by Peter Millership; Editing by Giles Elgood