Libya, Mar 14 – Libyan rebels braced for a new onslaught Monday as shells fell near Ajdabiya, a key town they have vowed to defend against loyalist forces advancing towards their capital Benghazi.
General Abdel Fatah Yunis, who resigned as Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi\’s interior minister soon after the rebellion began in mid-February, told reporters in Benghazi that Ajdabiya, 100 miles (170 kilometres) to the west, was "a vital city."
"It\’s on the route to the east, to Benghazi and to Tobruk and also to the south. Ajdabiya\’s defence is very important… We will defend it," he said late Sunday.
Rebels reported that four shells fired by government forces fell Monday morning six kilometres (four miles) west of Ajdabiya, causing no casualties.
The rebel fighters, who have been pushed back inexorably by superior forces in recent days, know they can expect little quarter from Kadhafi\’s troops, armed with heavy artillery and above all air power.
Libyan army spokesman Colonel Milad Hussein told reporters in Tripoli those forces were "marching to cleanse the country" of insurgents, whom he called "rats and terrorists."
From Ajdabiya one road runs north along the coast to Benghazi, Libya\’s second city, with a population of one million, while another goes straight across the desert eastward to the oil port of Tobruk, which to date has given rebels full control up to the Egyptian border.
It is a vital transit route for supplies from abroad.
Yunis said that the rebel withdrawal had been "tactical", arguing that Kadhafi\’s forces were becoming over-stretched.
"We feel he will have serious logistical problems and serious difficulties for supplying his troops, because they\’re getting extended all the time," he said.
But among the rebels only the defectors from Kadhafi\’s army have military experience: they have few heavy weapons and are extremely vulnerable to air attack.
The offensive by the Libyan air force has led to mounting calls for an internationally-imposed no fly zone over the country, but the UN Security Council is divided on the issue.
Among the veto-wielding permanent members, China is against, Britain and France in favour, while the United States and Russia are lukewarm.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed for Europe and the Middle East Monday for talks focusing on the uprising in Libya.
Clinton will meet in Paris with Mahmoud Jibril, from the opposition national council set up by the rebels, who is expected to plead for foreign military intervention.
She will also discuss with her G8 counterparts from France, Russia, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy and Japan the no-fly zone and other ways to help the opposition in Libya.
Calls for such a zone gained momentum after the Arab League came out in favour of the idea on Saturday. Washington welcomed the decision but remained non-committal.
Clinton has said a no-fly zone plan will be presented to NATO on Tuesday.
As Kadhafi\’s forces approach, the mood in Benghazi has changed from the euphoria of the first heady days of the revolt a month ago to apprehension and fear.
"We are frightened of what\’s coming, frightened of getting blown up," retired civil servant Mohammed Gepsi said Sunday.
Rebels also hold a few towns in western Libya, notably the country\’s third city, Misrata, a port between Tripoli and Kadhafi\’s birthplace of Sirte, which the army spokesman admitted was still resisting heavy attacks.
"We will soon purge this city as well," Hussein said.
Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaaim told reporters that a number of "Islamist terrorists" had been arrested in Zawiyah, 40 kilometres (25 miles) west of Tripoli, which fell to Kadhafi\’s forces on Wednesday.
He identified one suspect as Mohammed Hamadi, and said he is a leading member of Mauritania\’s Muslim Brotherhood. "We have received a request from Nouakchott for his extradition," Kaaim said.
Kadhafi regularly accuses al-Qaeda of being behind the uprising.
Senior al-Qaeda militant Abu Yahya al-Libi, himself a Libyan, said Sunday the insurgents "must carry on with their revolution, without hesitation or fear, in order to push Kadhafi into the abyss."
The US-based Human Rights Watch meanwhile said Libyan security forces had unleashed a wave of arbitrary arrests in Tripoli, "brutally suppressing all opposition."
In other developments, Libyan state television said Kadhafi had met the ambassadors of China, Russia and India to discuss the possibility of handing them control of the country\’s oil exports.
Libya\’s National Oil Corporation had told its employees to return to work and called on foreign companies to send in their tankers, the television reported.
According to oil giant Total, the conflict has slashed Libya\’s output by 1.4 million barrels a day to under 300,000, but Qatar\’s Energy Minister Mohammed Saleh al-Sada said on Sunday that the world oil market was still "comfortable."
Elsewhere in the region, Bahrain faced more unrest Monday amid reports that neighbouring Saudi Arabia could send troops to help restore order in the strategic kingdom.
Thousands of protesters were occupying the business district a day after more than 200 people were injured there in clashes between riot police and demonstrators.
Opposition parliamentarian Ali al-Aswad said a government official had informed MPs that Saudi security forces had been invited into the city to help quell the unrest.
Britain\’s Foreign Office cited reports that the Saudi National Guard will enter Bahrain as it urged Britons to avoid all travel to the mainly Shiite archipelago, where the Sunni monarchy is under mounting pressure to reform.