By Arab News
Setting up a “no-fly” zone over Libya would require an attack to cripple its air defenses, the US defense secretary said on Wednesday, as the United States intensified pressure on Muammar Qaddafi to step down.
“Let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses … and then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a congressional hearing.
The Arab League said Wednesday it would consider backing a no-fly zone to end the crackdown on rebels, but ruled out supporting any direct foreign military intervention.
“The Arab countries cannot remain with their arms folded when the blood of the brotherly Libyan people is being shed,” the league said in a resolution after a meeting of foreign ministers in Cairo.
Two US amphibious assault ships have reached the Mediterranean Sea, a US official said on Wednesday. The USS Ponce and the USS Kearsarge, assault ships that typically carry Marines, cleared the Suez Canal from the Red Sea and entered the Mediterranean.
United States and other nations seek to force a defiant Qaddafi to end his 41-year rule in the face of an uprising by fragmented groups of rebels. Western nations have also been considering a no-fly zone.
Gates said a no-fly zone for Libya “also requires more airplanes than you can find on a single aircraft carrier, so it is a big operation in a big country.”
Meanwhile, opponents of Qaddafi repelled an attack by the Libyan leader’s forces trying to retake a key coastal oil installation in a topsy-turvy battle Wednesday in which shells splashed in the Mediterranean and a warplane bombed a beach where rebel fighters were charging over the dunes. At least 10 anti-Qaddafi fighters were killed in the battle.
The assault on the Brega oil port was the first major regime counteroffensive against the opposition-held eastern half of Libya.
For the past week, pro-Qaddafi forces have been focusing on the west, securing his stronghold in the capital Tripoli and trying to take back nearby rebel-held cities with only mixed success. But the foray east against opposition-held Brega appeared to stumble. The pro-Qaddafi forces initially recaptured the oil facilities Wednesday morning. But then a wave of opposition citizen militias drove them out again, cornering them in a nearby university campus where they battled for several hours until the approximately 200 Qaddafi loyalists fled.
In the capital, Qaddafi vowed, “We will fight until the last man and woman.” He lashed out against Europe and the United States for their pressure on him to step down, warning that thousands of Libyans will die if US and NATO forces intervene in the conflict.
One of Washington’s biggest concerns is that Libya will slide into chaos and become a haven for Al-Qaeda much like Somalia though it does not now expect that, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday.
“One of our biggest concerns is Libya descending into chaos and becoming a giant Somalia. It’s right now not something that we see in the offing but many of the Al-Qaeda activists in Afghanistan and later in Iraq came from Libya and came from eastern Libya, which is now the so-called free area of Libya,” Clinton said.
The UN’s food donor agency launched a $38.7 million program to feed 2.7 million people trapped in Libya’s turmoil as the world scrambled to ease a looming refugee crisis on its borders with Egypt and Tunisia.
The World Food Program said emergency food had been shipped to the Tunisia-Libya border where tens of thousands trying to flee Libya have massed and shipments of food assistance were being re-routed.
High energy biscuits were being distributed at crossing points on the Libya-Tunisa border and shipments of wheat flour rerouted to the Tunisian border and the Libyan port of Benghazi, it added.
Amid pleas for assistance from the UN refugee agency to cope with “a humanitarian emergency” on Libya’s borders, the European Union tripled crisis funds from three to 10 million euros.