By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Forces loyal to Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi have reportedly tried but failed to retake the opposition-held city of Zawiya to the west of the capital, Tripoli.
The attack came as Qaddafi, in an interview with Western journalists, laughed off growing international calls for his resignation, saying the Libyan people loved him.
Witnesses say pro-Qaddafi troops battled for six hours overnight in an attempt to storm Zawiya from six different positions around the city. Their assaults including barrages of tank and heavy artillery fire at the western approaches of the city around dawn today.
Correspondents report that the anti-Qaddafi fighters were able to push back the attackers — who were said to be composed mostly of uniformed Libyan troops rather than the foreign mercenaries being deployed by Qaddafi’s regime in parts of Tripoli. But Qaddafi’s troops had the city surrounded today and have been stopping food deliveries from reaching residents.
Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim claims Qaddafi’s regime is trying to work through tribal and intellectual leaders to stabilize the situation. But Kaim has also threatened more military assaults if opposition leaders refuse to back down from their demands for Qaddafi’s resignation.
“If all attempts and efforts for social dialogue and mutual understanding are exhausted, if intellectuals and heads of the tribes and wise people fail in securing stability and peace,” Kaim said, “then very well-guided force will be used.”
Meanwhile, pro-Qaddafi troops were massing today some 10 kilometers further to the west at the town of Nalut near the border with Tunisia. Residents of Nalut said preparations appeared to be under way for another major assault by Qaddafi’s troops.
In eastern Libya, under the control of antigovernment demonstrators and defecting army troops since last week, the opposition forces have been enlisting volunteers and training youth to defend against counterattacks by Qaddafi loyalists. As their numbers increase, rank-and-file opposition troops are talking increasingly about an eventual march on Qaddafi’s headquarters in Tripoli.
But government troops are fighting back in the east, too. The Libyan Air Force in the last 24 hours bombed an ammunition depot in the city of Dabiya, to the east of Tripoli.
Fighting also has been reported in the opposition-held coastal city of Misurata about 220 kilometers east of Tripoli, with government forces carrying out attacks on a strategic airfield.
The latest violence comes after Qaddafi gave interviews to three Western news outlets — BBC, ABC, and “The Times” of London — claiming that the only opposition in the country was foreign Al-Qaeda terrorists and young Libyans on drugs who are taking orders from Al-Qaeda.
Qaddafi laughed when he was asked by one journalist if he would heed growing international calls for his resignation. The embattled Libyan ruler said all of the people of Libya loved him and were ready to sacrifice their lives for his regime.
“They love me. All my people [are] with me. They love me all. They will die to protect me, my people,” he said.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, called Qaddafi’s statement “delusional.”
“When he can laugh in talking to American and international journalists while he is slaughtering his own people,” she said, “it only underscores how unfit he is to lead and how disconnected he is from reality.”
Rice also said the United States was reaching out to opposition groups in Libya.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has moved warships and aircraft closer to Libya and the U.S. Treasury Department has frozen some $30 billion of the Libyan regime’s assets in the United States.
Officials from Washington also have been consulting the NATO alliance about the possibility of enforcing a proposed UN resolution that would create a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Qaddafi’s air force from attacking demonstrators with fighter jets and helicopter gunships.
The growing international pressure against Qaddafi’s regime also includes weapons and economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, Britain, Germany, Austria, and other countries.
On February 28 in Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the UN Human Rights Council that Qaddafi must step down to avoid further bloodshed in the country.
“Colonel Qaddafi and those around him must be held accountable for these acts which violate international legal obligations and common decency. Through their actions they have lost the legitimacy to govern,” Clinton said, “and the people of Libya have made themselves clear: It is time for Qaddafi to go — now — without further violence or delay.”
The UN General Assembly is expected later today to vote on a recommendation by the Human Rights Council to remove Libya as a member because of the violent government crackdown against demonstrators.
Meanwhile, foreign governments continue to evacuate their nationals from Libya while floods of Libyan refugees are also trying to leave the country — creating what aid workers say is a growing possibility of a humanitarian crisis.
written by Ron Synovitz, with agency reports