Thinks looked very grim for anti-Qaddafi forces in Libya this morning. They were down to one last, ragtag line of defense before the crucial city of Benghazi. The Times reported:
Behind tanks, heavy artillery and airstrikes, forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi routed on Tuesday a ragtag army of insurgents and would-be revolutionaries who were holding the last defensive line before the rebel capital of Benghazi.
Blasts of incoming fire came every few seconds at the edge of this city straddling a strategic highway intersection where rebels have bulldozed berms and filled hundreds of sandbags around two metal green arches marking the western approaches to the city. As the shelling intensified on Tuesday, hundreds of cars packed with children, mattresses, suitcases — anything that could be grabbed and packed in — careened through the streets as residents fled. Long lines of cars could be seen on the highway heading north to the Benghazi, about 100 miles away.
In Benghazi itself, though, there were no signs of preparations for a vigorous defense.
The barrage offered a loud and ferocious counterpoint to stalled efforts by Western diplomats to agree on help for the retreating rebels, like a no-flight zone, even as Colonel Qaddafi warned the insurgents on Tuesday that they had only one choice: surrender or flee. By Tuesday afternoon, the pro-Qaddafi forces had taken control of the road to Benghazi to the east, cutting off the rebels’ main line of retreat, The Associated Press reported, citing rebel sources.
After swearing in recent days to make a last ditch, do-or-die stand here, the rebels offered little resistance. Within an hour of the opening salvos, they began falling back from the city’s approaches as the shelling came closer to their positions. Some still spoke valiantly about drawing a line in the desert sand, but the superior firepower and numbers of the loyalist troops suggested otherwise. The crash of heavy ordnance almost drowned out the cries of a muezzin from the minaret at a frontline mosque: “God is great and to God, praise.”
A billboard from the days before the uprising began in mid-February proclaimed: “Ajdabiya — land of jihad and sacrifice.” By midafternoon, the slogan had taken on an ominous new meaning.
“I swear to God I am expecting a battle in the streets. Qaddafi has already shelled us with artillery and planes, and I suspect the army is coming,” said Mohammed Abdullah, a 50-year-old resident among a group of people peering at the sky as a loyalist spotter plane circled the city, illustrating how little restraint the loyalist forces feel about deploying their unchallenged air power as diplomacy falters.
Within hours, however, the loyalist forces were in complete control, their tanks standing in the center of the strategic town
After a meeting of the Group of 8 foreign ministers in Paris, the French foreign minister, Alain Juppé, said he had been unable to secure agreement on the imposition of a no-flight zone. “If we had used military force last week to neutralize a certain number of airfields and the dozens of airplanes” available to Colonel Qaddafi, “perhaps the reversals suffered by the opposition would not have happened,” he said. “But that is the past.”
The grim news from Ajdabiya was met with anger, anguish and tears by rebel leaders in Benghazi. On Tuesday afternoon, many of them privately acknowledged that an attack on the seat of rebel power was inevitable, if not imminent, and they again pleaded for Western intervention.
Iman Bugaighis, a professor who has become a spokeswoman for the rebels, lost her composure as she spoke about the recent death of a friend’s son, who died in battle last week. Her friend’s other son, a doctor, was still missing. Western nations, she said, had “lost any credibility.”
“I am not crying out of weakness,” she added. “I’ll stay here until the end. Libyans are brave. We will stand for what we believe in. But we will never forget the people who stood with us and the people who betrayed us.”
In Ajdabiya, Mr. Abdullah said he and his eight children would not leave. “Qaddafi is determined to stay in power, and we are determined to get rid of him and live differently. God willing, we have right on our side.”
Militarily, though, the situation seemed bleak. The attack began a day after loyalist helicopters dropped pamphlets warning residents that the campaign to recapture the town would begin soon. “We are coming,” the pamphlet said. Airstrikes and ground attacks already had begun on Monday.
Fighters at the front acknowledged their deficit in weaponry and the weakness of their lines, but reached for a sentiment heard often during their headlong retreat from Ras Lanuf, the oil town to the west that marked a high point in their failed campaign to march on Tripoli, the capital.
“If we lose, no one can imagine that Libya will be the same as before,” said Muftah Sanussi, a 36-year-old volunteer fighter. The fighting “goes forwards and goes backwards but the revolution itself cannot retreat.”
At the frontline, rumors raced through the knots of fighters, driven, it seemed, more by hope than reality: two airplanes were flying in from Benghazi; resistance was still strong elsewhere; Colonel Qaddafi’s fighters were no more than mercenaries who would quit the fray before sundown.
But then just now some exciting news. Reuters reports: