France says it is flying medical aid to the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi in what it calls the start of a “massive” operation to support opposition forces trying to topple Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said two planes were due to leave for Benghazi Monday, carrying doctors, nurses, medicine and medical equipment for the Libyan people in what he described as “liberated” areas.
Opposition protesters backed by defecting army units have taken control of all of eastern Libya and parts of the west since launching an uprising earlier this month to end Gadhafi’s 42-year rule.
Residents of the western city of Zawiya were bracing Monday for a possible counter-attack by 2,000 pro-Gadhafi troops who they said had surrounded the city. Zawiya is located 50 kilometers west of the capital, Tripoli – Gadhafi’s last major stronghold.
Western journalists in Zawiya found the city firmly in rebel hands Sunday, with defecting military officers displaying army tanks and anti-aircraft guns mounted on pickup trucks ready for the expected counter-attack. The reporters said hundreds of residents also gathered and chanted anti-Gadhafi slogans in the city center.
In the east, Libyan protest leaders formed a “national council” to run cities under their control Sunday, and allowed oil shipments to resume from their territory.
A spokesman for the National Libyan Council said the body will be civilian-run and rebel military officers will have separate committees to manage defense.
Abdul-Hafidh Gogha, a prominent human rights lawyer, ruled out negotiations with Gadhafi, saying the council will operate from Benghazi until Tripoli is freed from the Libyan leader’s grip.
In the eastern port of Tobruk, oil producer Arabian Gulf Oil said it loaded crude onto two tankers for export to Austria and China. The shipments are the company’s first since February 10.
Gadhafi dismissed his opponents Sunday, describing them as only a small group surrounded by his forces. In a statement made by telephone to Serbia’s Pink television station, he also condemned sanctions imposed on Libya Saturday by the U.N. Security Council.
In what appeared to be an effort by Gadhafi to appease protesting civilians, state-run television said his government began handing out $400 grants to Libyan families to “redistribute” the country’s oil wealth.