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Libyan Foreign Minister Quits, Arrives In Britain

Libyan rebels returned from the battlefield outside the oil-rich town of Ras Lanuf on Tuesday.
Aris Messinis
AFP/Getty Images
Libyan rebels returned from the battlefield outside the oil-rich town of Ras Lanuf on Tuesday.

Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa arrived in the U.K. on Wednesday and is resigning from his post, Britain's government said. The development came the same day Britain joined the U.S. and France in saying it is willing to consider arming Libyan rebels.

"He travelled here under his own free will," Britain's Foreign Office said in a statement. "He has told us that he is resigning his post."

Moussa, one of the most senior members of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's regime, arrived at Farnborough Airport on Wednesday from Tunisia, the statement said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said he is certain there is a legal loophole to allow nations to supply weapons to Libya's rebels — but he stressed that the U.K. has not decided whether it will offer assistance.

"We do not rule it out, but we have not taken any decision" on whether to supply equipment, he told the House of Commons.

Cameron's remarks came a day after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told an international summit on Libya that the U.N. resolution would allow nations to circumvent a current arms embargo. As to whether the country would do so, President Obama told NBC, "I'm not ruling it out, but I'm also not ruling it in."

France, one of the strongest backers of international intervention in Libya, believes arming rebels would require a new U.N. resolution; the existing one includes an arms embargo. But Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said after the London summit, "We are ready to discuss it with our partners."

Meanwhile, The New York Times is reportingthat the CIA already has clandestine operatives in Libya to gather intelligence for military airstrikes and make contact with rebels fighters. The newspaper quoted unnamed American officials.

Mark Mazzetti, the paper's national security correspondent who co-wrote the story, told NPR's Melissa Block that there are no more than a couple of dozen operatives on Libyan soil.

"Several weeks ago, the CIA put small teams of operatives into Libya to supplement some of the CIA operatives who had been working in the CIA station in Tripoli before they shutdown the embassy," he said. "So, the CIA is now gathering information in the country to help the airstrikes ... in Libya as well as both to sort of assist the rebels as well as kid of vet them to find out just who these guys are."

Mazzetti also said there are similar British teams on the ground.

The Times report also said that Obama signed a secret finding authorizing the CIA to arm the rebels, but it noted that hasn't happened yet.

Russia and China — which abstained from the U.N. Security Council vote authorizing the arms embargo and no-fly zone — expressed concern about the NATO-led operation in Libya.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking at a news conference in Moscow on Wednesday, took issue with the idea of sending weapons to Libya's opposition. He said Moscow agreed with remarks by NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen that the alliance should "protect the [Libyan] population, not arm it."

Lavrov said that in Libya, "it's clear that it will be a different regime, and it's clear that it should be a democratic regime. But Libyans themselves must decide without influence from outside."

Russia and China also expressed concern about international military intervention in the North African nation.

Chinese President Hu Jintao called for an immediate cease-fire and admonished French President Nicolas Sarkozy, an ardent proponent of the bombing campaign, at a diplomatic meeting Wednesday in Beijing. Hu called for peaceful efforts to restore stability, expressed China's concern that Libya may end up divided and said force would complicate a negotiated settlement.

Rebels Routed In Ras Lanuf, Brega

Opposition fighters beat a retreat from the towns of Ras Lanuf and then Brega on Wednesday, fleeing the superior firepower and tactics of Gadhafi's loyalist forces.

While the rebels have largely stuck to the main east-west highway along the coast, Gadhafi's troops have begun deploying small, mobile teams armed with mortars and small rockets to maneuver around the front line, some opposition fighters told NPR. The government forces, backed by artillery, were using the desert expanse along the road to outflank the opposition fighters.

NPR's Eric Westervelt said the rebels made a "fairly fast and somewhat chaotic retreat" from Brega, about 450 miles east of Tripoli, when shelling from government troops got closer and word arrived about the fall of Ras Lanuf.

He described "a steady stream of rebel cars — civilian cars and pickup trucks mounted with machine guns ... in the process of pulling back [from Brega] in the face of fairly sustained artillery fire."

It wasn't clear whether all parts of Brega had fallen under government control.

NATO planes had flown over the zone where the heaviest fighting was under way earlier Wednesday, but it was unclear whether any airstrikes hit the area.

U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Clint Gebke, a spokesman for the NATO operation aboard the USS Mount Whitney, said he could not confirm any specific strikes but that Western aircraft were engaging pro-Gadhafi forces.

"The joint task force is still supporting the civilians on the ground via sorties," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Opposition Morale Suffers

Gadhafi's troops appeared to have their sights on Ajdabiya, a city that rebels recaptured on Saturday after a bitter and prolonged fight, Westervelt said. He added that rebels were showing signs of bitterness and infighting — in some cases blaming their commanders — as the battlefield reversals took their toll on morale.

Fresh from the fighting at Ras Lanuf and a humiliating retreat, Ali Jamal bin Hassouna told fellow fighters that their leaders had misled them.

"The rebel commanders are betraying us," he shouted, waving his arms in exasperation. "They told us the ammunition we had was enough, so we moved forward. But it wasn't enough. They made us go into the fighting unprepared. ... Our people were getting slaughtered before our eyes up there."

Soon after, ambulances with wounded fighters began arriving at a nearby clinic.

Opposition fighters also were extremely upset that NATO aircraft didn't bomb Gadhafi's positions and that they have had to make a full retreat for several days, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reported from Tripoli.

International airstrikes have neutralized Gadhafi's air force and pounded his army, but those ground forces remain far better armed, trained and organized than the opposition. The rebels, with few weapons more powerful than rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, can attack targets 3 to 4 miles away, but the loyalists' heavy weapons have a range of 12 miles, according to the AP.

Earlier in the week, NATO airstrikes helped rebels who control the eastern half of Libya rapidly advance westward on the main coastal highway that leads to Gadhafi's stronghold in the capital. They got within 60 miles of the city of Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown and a bastion of support for the longtime leader with a major military base.

But the air cover stopped and rebel forces had to abandon their push toward Sirte for the second time in weeks. The last time, early in the month, it nearly meant the end of their movement: They retreated hundreds of miles east, and Gadhafi forces nearly stormed their capital, Benghazi, until the U.S. and European strikes began 10 days ago, driving Gadhafi's forces back from bloody sieges.

"These rebels are ill-equipped, ill-trained; they don't have a lot of weaponry. And rebels will tell you that without airstrikes, they simply would have lost not only Ras Lanuf, Ajdabiya and Brega, but Benghazi itself," Garcia-Navarro said.

In the more densely inhabited western half of the country, Gadhafi has largely crushed the rebellion in Tripoli and in several towns that rose up against his rule since the turmoil began Feb. 15. Other towns and cities in the west never saw an effective anti-Gadhafi uprising, suggesting his popular support there is stronger, or that tribes in those areas chose to stay neutral to see who wins the conflict.

Regime forces continued to besiege the city of Misurata — the last significant rebel bastion in the west. From Misurata's outskirts, the troops pounded streets and the city's port, residents said. At least three people died in shelling Monday, a doctor in the city said.

Gadhafi Has 'Lost The Legitimacy To Lead'

In its statement, the Britain Foreign Office said Koussa was "no longer willing" to represent Gadhafi.

"We encourage those around [Gadhafi] to abandon him and embrace a better future for Libya that allows political transition and real reform that meets the aspirations of the Libyan people," the statement added.

Britain also said that it expelled five Libyan diplomats loyal to Gadhafi, including the country's military attache, but not the ambassador. Britain's Foreign Office said the diplomats posed a potential threat to the U.K.'s national security and accused them of intimidating Libyans in London who oppose Gadhafi. The five were ordered to leave Britain within a week.

At the London summit, world leaders agreed that Gadhafi should step down but have yet to decide what additional pressure to put on him.

"Gadhafi has lost the legitimacy to lead, so we believe he must go. We're working with the international community to try to achieve that outcome," Clinton told reporters after the talks concluded Tuesday.

Representatives of the opposition's political leadership, the Interim National Council, met Tuesday with Clinton and British Foreign Minister William Hague but did not attend the main conference.

Mahmoud Shammam, a council spokesman, suggested Libyans were prepared to fight their own battle. He told reporters at the London conference that properly equipped, the rebels "would finish Gadhafi in a few days."

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini pushed a plan for a cease-fire, exile for Gadhafi and a framework for talks on Libya's future between tribal leaders and opposition figures. He said negotiations on securing his exit were being conducted with "absolute discretion," though he said there could be no promise of immunity for Gadhafi from international prosecution.

Uganda Offers Gadhafi Safe Haven

So far, Gadhafi has shown little sign that he might choose exile, vowing to fight to the end.

Uganda appeared to be the first country to publicly offer Gadhafi refuge. The spokesman for Uganda's president, Tamale Mirundi, told the AP on Wednesday that he would be welcome there. Uganda, however, is a signatory to the statute that created the International Criminal Court, whose chief prosecutor is deciding whether to seek an indictment against Gadhafi.

Mirundi said that because so many Ugandans had fled that country during dictator Idi Amin's rule, "we have soft spots for asylum-seekers. Gadhafi would be allowed to live here if he chooses to do so."

Human Rights Watch said Gadhafi's forces laid land mines in the eastern outskirts of Adjabiya, an area they held from March 17 until Saturday, when airstrikes drove them west.

The group cited the electricity director for eastern Libya, Abdal Minam al-Shanti, who said two anti-personnel mines detonated when a truck ran over them, but no one was hurt. Shanti said a civil defense team found and disarmed 24 anti-vehicle mines and an estimated 30 to 40 plastic anti-personnel mines in what Human Rights Watch described as a heavily traveled area.

"Libya should immediately stop using anti-personnel mines, which most of the world banned years ago," said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.

With reporting from NPR's Eric Westervelt in Brega, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Tripoli and Philip Reeves in London. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff and Wires