Monday, March 28, 2011

Libyan rebels target Gadhafi's birthplace

Libyan rebels target Gadhafi's birthplace

Tripoli, Libya (CNN) -- Libyan opposition fighters continued their march west Monday with a key target in their sights: Sirte, Moammar Gadhafi's birthplace.

Taking the city would be a symbolic victory for the rebels, who regained control of several significant towns over the weekend as coalition airstrikes continued in the North African nation.

Rebel forces claimed to have gained control of the town of Ras Lanuf on Sunday. The opposition also appeared to have taken control of the key oil town of al-Brega. Victories in those cities marked a comeback for the ragtag group of amateur soldiers who are unified by one mission: toppling Gadhafi's nearly 42-year rule.

On Monday, opposition troops and Gadhafi's security forces battled over the town of Nawfaliyah. Opposition forces told CNN they had gained control of the city.

CNN could hear explosions and see plumes of smoke in the area of Nawfaliyah and Sirte.

Rebels said the fight to take over Sirte could be their toughest and bloodiest battle yet.

They credited coalition airstrikes with helping them regain ground, noting that they had encountered little resistance as they headed west over the weekend.

CNN spoke with a wounded rebel about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Sirte, bandaged on the left side of his head and face. He said he and a group of fellow opposition fighters had reached about 30 kilometers (nearly 20 miles) from Sirte, near the city's main entrance.

They came across a group of Gadhafi forces who raised a white flag -- a suggestion that they would not shoot. But as the opposition approached the group, the Gadhafi forces fired on them indiscriminately, killing some of the opposition members and wounding others, he said. Vehicles were destroyed as well, he said.

The rebel told CNN's Arwa Damon the opposition needs more airstrikes before it can advance further.

Coalition officials say they are enforcing a U.N. Security Council resolution approved on March 17 that creates a no-fly zone above Libya and mandates the protection of civilians.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov countered that claim Monday, telling reporters in Moscow that the coalition's actions seemed to expand beyond the U.N. resolution's scope.

"There are reports -- which go undenied -- that the air forces of the coalition conduct airstrikes on Gadhafi's troops and support the military actions of rebels. There is an obvious controversy there," he said. "We believe that the interference into what is, essentially, an internal civil war is not sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council resolution."

Russia abstained from voting on the U.N. Security Council resolution but did not veto it.

 Libyan government officials have also argued that coalition forces target only troops loyal to Gadhafi.

"The rebels are making their advance and no one is stopping them. And no one is even talking to them or saying, 'Where are you going?' or 'Why are you taking offensive positions and attacking the Libyan army and Libyan cities?'" Moussa Ibrahim, a Libyan government spokesman, told reporters in Tripoli.

He accused NATO of "starving the Libyan population to get Libya on its knees to beg for mercy."

"They are trying to weaken our spirits. They are not trying to protect civilians," he said.

NATO, which has 28 member countries, formally approved plans Sunday to take control of enforcing the U.N. Security Council resolution.

The coalition enforcing the resolution has been led by the United States, the United Kingdom and France.

NATO officials said the handover of enforcing the no-fly zone from the United States and allies should be complete by Monday.

But it could take until Thursday or Friday for the organization to take over the entire mission. NATO officials described the transition as a phased and seamless operation.

"Our mandate is very clear. We're there to protect civilians against attacks. No more, no less," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told CNN.

Rasmussen said military commanders will make decisions on day-to-day operations within the framework NATO members agreed upon over the weekend. He declined to discuss specific rules of engagement, but stressed that NATO also is enforcing an arms embargo in Libya.

"We are not in Libya to arm people, but to protect people," he said.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver a speech about the situation in Libya at 7:30 p.m. ET Monday. That follows calls from all quarters for the U.S. leader to clarify why he sent troops to enforce the U.N.-authorized military mission.

On Monday, Libyan state television displayed images of injured people in a hospital and destroyed buildings as it reported that civilians were wounded when bombs struck the central Libyan city of Sabha in the early morning hours. CNN was unable to independently verify that report.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Sunday accused Gadhafi of placing the bodies of people his regime has killed at the sites of some missile strikes by the U.S.-led coalition.

"The truth of the matter is we have trouble coming up with proof of any civilian casualties that we have been responsible for," Gates said on "Face the Nation" on CBS.

"But we do have a lot of intelligence reporting about Gadhafi taking the bodies of the people he's killed and putting them at the sites where we've attacked."

While the opposition rolled westward on Sunday, fighting continued in Misrata. A doctor working at a hospital in the city said eight civilians were killed and 22 injured in violence Sunday. CNN could not independently confirm his report.

French warplanes on Sunday led airstrikes on armored vehicles and on a large munitions depot in the regions of Misrata and Zintan, according to the French Ministry of Defense.