Blow for Gathafi as foreign minister defects
Libyan leader Moamer Gathafi suffered a major blow with the defection of his foreign minister, as his forces Thursday bombarded a rag-tag rebel army and NATO ruled out sending them arms.
Reporters said running battles raged Thursday on the edge of Brega, with Gathafi's forces shelling the insurgents who returned fire with Grad rockets and rocket-propelled grenades.
A day after Gathafi's forces overran the key oil hub Ras Lanuf and neighbouring villages, the frontline ebbed and flowed on the outskirts of Brega, about 800 kilometres (500 miles) from Tripoli.
Artillery shells thumped across the desert north of the road, sending up black clouds of smoke, as the rebels responded with a barrage of Grad rockets that flared through the sky before disappearing off in the distance.
Clashes also ensued around an oil terminal, but it was unclear who was in control of the town, which the rebels had seized back at the weekend, only to lose again on Wednesday.
Experts said the opposition lacks anti-tank weapons, radios and other basics, but above all the disjointed, chaotic force needs some rudimentary training.
But as a debate raged over whether Western powers should arm the insurgents, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Stockholm such a move was beyond the scope of the alliance.
"We are there to protect the Libyan people, not to arm people," Rasmussen told reporters.
"As far as NATO is concerned, and I speak on behalf of NATO, we will focus on the enforcement of the arms embargo and the clear purpose of an arms embargo is to stop the flow of weapons into the country," he said, hours after NATO took full command of all Libyan operations Thursday.
US, British, French, Canadian, Danish and Belgian jets have attacked Gathafi's ground forces since March 19 under a UN mandate to use "all necessary measures" to protect civilians.
The strikes have damaged the Libyan regime's forces but Gathafi's army is not "about to break," the US military's top officer told lawmakers in Washington.
Admiral Mike Mullen said at least 20 percent of the regime's military had been knocked out but "that does not mean he's about to break from a military standpoint."
Also in Washington, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said that economic and political pressure and Libya's people rather than the military strikes will eventually drive strongman Gathafi from power.
"However, this NATO-led operation can degrade Gathafi’s military capacity to the point where he -- and those around him -- will be forced into a very different set of choices and behaviours in the future," Gates said in prepared testimony to a key US House of Representatives committee.
France, which on Tuesday had indicated it was ready to discuss sending arms shipments to the insurgents, on Thursday ruled out such a step, saying it is not compatible with a UN resolution on the conflict.
"Such assistance is not on the agenda because it is not compatible with resolution 1973," the UN Security Council Resolution that authorised UN members to intervene to protect civilians, Defence Minister Gerard Longuet told reporters in Paris.
Libya's rebels meanwhile are treating as "classified" any talks or moves it is now making to procure weapons from foreign powers, a spokesman told reporters in their stronghold of Benghazi Thursday.
However the spokesman, Mustafa Gheriani, did say: "We are trying to specify the type of weapons we want."
He reaffirmed that "it's naive not to think we are going to arm ourselves."
The defection of foreign minister Mussa Kussa, the most senior figure to jump ship since the uprising against Gathafi's iron-clad 41-year rule erupted more than six weeks ago, was widely seen as an indication that the strongman's regime is crumbling.
Kussa arrived at Farnborough Airfield, west of London, on Wednesday, a Foreign Office statement said.
"He travelled here under his own free will. He has told us that he is resigning his post," it added.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague insisted that Kussa, who has been blamed for atrocities including the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, had not been offered immunity from prosecution in British or international courts.
He told reporters the minister was being interviewed "voluntarily" by British officials.
In Tripoli, the Libyan government confirmed the "resignation" of Kussa and said he was allowed to leave the country for medical treatment in neighbouring Tunisia.
"Mr Kussa asked for permission to seek medical care in Tunisia," spokesman Mussa Ibrahim told a news conference, adding that "permission was granted."
Defected immigration minister Ali Errishi told France 24 television Kussa's defection was a "sign that the regime's days are numbered."
"It is the end... it is a blow to the regime (and) others will follow," said Errishi who himself defected soon after the insurrection began.
"Kussa was his most trusted aide. Gathafi no longer has anybody. It's just him and his kids."
The New York Times, meanwhile, reported that the United States and Britain had inserted covert intelligence agents into Libya to make contact with rebels and to gather data to guide coalition air strikes.
The White House refused to comment on the apparent shadow war and also declined to discuss another report that President Barack Obama had signed a secret order allowing Central Intelligence Agency operations in the country.
As Western leaders plotted his downfall, Libya's eccentric leader warned that they had started something in Libya which they cannot control.
"They have started something dangerous, something they cannot control. It will be out of their control no matter what methods of destruction they have at their disposal," Gathafi said.