Fighting continues in Libya, as does debate on arming rebels

Libyan rebels and forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi fought over the cities of al-Brega and Misrata on Monday as uncertainty lingered whether Western nations would arm the outgunned opposition.

An opposition officer in al-Brega said Monday that rebel forces had the oil town surrounded from the north, east and west and had been bombarding the area with rockets for much of the afternoon. Maj. Miftah Omar Hamzah told CNN that 50 carloads of loyalist forces remained in al-Brega, but he insisted that the Gadhafi troops were on the defensive.

New al-Brega, a suburban area of the homes of workers at a nearby oil refinery, was partially under rebel control. Opposition officers said they were still clearing the area of Gadhafi forces, and a resident fleeing the area told CNN that it is still unsafe.

There have been no NATO airstrikes in the area for at least 24 hours, he said.

In Misrata, destruction permeated the city, which has been choked off by pro-Gadhafi forces.

An opposition councilman in Misrata told CNN that a tank entered the outskirts of the city about 3 a.m. Monday and headed for the port area. Opposition fighters descended on the area and fought for two hours to force the tank to turn back, which it eventually did, the councilman said.

The councilman said he could hear NATO jets flying overhead Monday afternoon for the first time in 36 hours.

"We need a lot of help in Misrata. There's so much death there," said Mustafa Abdul Hamali, a 46-year-old taxi driver who lost half of a leg. "I was driving in my car with my wife, and my car just blew up. I don't know what happened."

On Monday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague ruled out his country arming the rebels but said it would provide them telecommunications equipment given the urgent need on the ground.

"We are prepared to supply non-lethal equipment which will help with the protection of civilian lives an the delivery of humanitarian aid," he said.

Libyan rebels have been hampered by a lack of organization and training on heavy weaponry when confronting the better-trained, better-armed forces of Gadhafi, who is under investigation for alleged crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court.

"We were fighting with light weapons, but they had so much more," said Khalid Moteridi, 32, a businessman who was fighting with the rebels when, he said, he was shot twice in the legs by a sniper. "Artillery, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank rockets -- that's how they were fighting back."

While Hague's statement seemed to rule out the United Kingdom arming the rebels, U.S. officals have yet to say whether they will do so. Both countries participated in airstrikes to weaken Gadhafi's military resources before NATO officially took command of the international operation.

Due to poor weather conditions in recent days, the United States approved a request by NATO to extend the use of some U.S. strike aircraft, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said Sunday.

"This is a short-term extension, which expires on Monday," Lungescu said.

Moteridi said the situation in Misrata has turned dire.

"It's a tragedy by all means," he said. "No electricity, no food, no water. We're trapped from all sides by the Gadhafi forces."

A doctor in Misrata told CNN that government forces shelled a clinic, leaving one dead and 15 injured Sunday. Last week, a hospital official said 398 people have been killed since the Libyan conflict began last month. He feared there were more deaths that his hospital didn't know about.

Diplomatic efforts to end the crisis seemed no closer to success Monday.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini on Monday said proposals outlined by an envoy whom Gadhaffi sent to Greece were "not credible" and said that his country would become the third to recognize the rebel Libyan National Transitional Council as the legitimate international representative of Libya. France and Qatar previously granted the rebel council similar status.

The nature of the message delivered by Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi was not immediately known.

"From what the Libyan envoy said, it is clear that the administration is looking for a solution," Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas said after the meeting. He said Obeidi is expected to continue talks in Turkey and Malta.

Some rebels from Misrata got a bit of a reprieve Sunday when a Turkish hospital ship picked up more than 300 of the wounded fighters. Their injuries included amputated limbs, broken bones and shrapnel wounds.

The ship is destined for the Turkish port of Cesme, where the patients will receive medical attention, opposition officials said. It made a stop in the rebel capital of Benghazi to pick up more patients and supplies, and was greeted by cheering supporters of the opposition.

Men wearing head bandages and eye patches waved back at the crowd.

West of Benghazi, the tug-of-war for control continued in al-Brega, which has changed hands six times in six weeks between government and opposition forces.

Rebel fighters retreated east of al-Brega on Sunday, reporting an ambush, roadside mines and a need for more ammunition.

Over the weekend, opposition spokesmen said 13 rebels were killed when NATO airstrikes hit several vehicles.

"Based on the information we have, they (the opposition forces who were hit) heard the airstrikes and went ahead to see what the damage was, and that's when they got hit," rebel spokesman Shamsiddin Abdulmolah said. "They were told to stay back, but they jumped the gun."

Lungescu, the NATO spokeswoman, said Saturday that NATO was investigating the incident.

"NATO takes any reports of civilian casualties very seriously, but exact details are hard to verify as we have no reliable sources on the ground," she said.

Despite the unyielding conflict, Moteridi, the rebel fighter who was shot twice in the legs by a sniper, said he won't give up.

"I'll go back to Misrata when I get better, God willing, and ... Gadhafi and his gangs will be defeated."

[Source: By the CNN Wire Staff, Cable News Network, 04Apr11]

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