REUTERS | Youssef Boudlal and Peter Graff | June 6, 2011
YAFRAN/TRIPOLI – Libyan rebels seized all of the mountain town of Yafran on Monday, driving out Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in a sign NATO air strikes may be paying off.
Yafran is spread over a hill, the bottom part of which had been controlled by pro-Gaddafi forces for more than a month and used to besiege the rebel-controlled part. Food, drinking water and medicines were running short.
“The rebels say they have taken the town,” said a Reuters photographer, after entering the town from the north.
“There is no sign of any Gaddafi forces.”
Yafran, about 100 km (60 miles) southwest of the Libyan capital, is in the Western Mountains where the local population — most of them belonging to the Berber ethnic minority — have joined the uprising against Gaddafi.
At least two powerful blasts were heard early on Monday evening in central Tripoli, where a NATO has been bombing targets of leader Muammar Gaddafi’s government since March, a Reuters correspondent in the Libyan capital said.
The rebels control the east of Libya, the western city of Misrata and the range of mountains near the border with Tunisia. But they have been unable to advance on the capital against Gaddafi’s better-equipped forces, despite the NATO air strikes.
It was unclear if Gaddafi forces remained in south Yafran. Rebel flags could be seen along with defaced posters of Gaddafi.
Asked about reports of rebel gains in the Western mountain area, Libyan Deputy Prime Minister Khaled Kaim told reporters government forces could retake rebel territory in hours, but were holding back from doing so to avoid civilian casualties.
British warplanes destroyed two tanks and two armoured personnel carriers in Yafran on June 2.
Towns the length of the mountain range have come under attack by pro-Gaddafi forces.
A rebel spokesman called Abdulrahman said Gaddafi’s forces had begun bombarding Zintan, another mountain town about 40 km (25 miles) west of Yafran, early on Monday with Grad rockets.
“Two civilians were martyred and a third wounded,” he said.
“Fighting between the revolutionaries and the brigades (pro-Gaddafi forces) broke out at around 1100 in the Bir Ayyad area, some 50 km (30 miles) northeast of Zintan,” he added.
“The revolutionaries destroyed three armoured vehicles. The fighting is still going on.”
Rebel spokesman Kalefa said Nalut, which is part of the Western Mountains range, was “relatively quiet” on Monday.
Accounts from Zintan and Nalut could not be independently verified because access for reporters is limited.
NATO attack helicopters were in action in the east on Sunday. Apaches destroyed a rocket launch system on the coast near the eastern town of Brega, Britain’s Defence Ministry said.
A French military source said French planes and helicopters had been operating in Libya every night since Friday, but declined to give further details.
Gaddafi’s forces also fired rockets into the rebel-held town of Ajdabiyah in the east on Monday and clashes broke out on the main road further west, rebel sources said.
Gaddafi’s troops and the eastern rebels have been locked in stalemate for weeks, with neither side able to hold territory on a stretch of road between Ajdabiyah and the Gaddafi-held oil town of Brega further west.
The new deployment of the helicopters is part of a plan to step up military operations to break the deadlock. Critics say NATO has gone far beyond its U.N. mandate to protect civilians.
Deputy Prime Minister Kaim dismissed the impact of NATO’s decision to deploy ground attack helicopters in combat.
“I think the helicopter is much easier for the Libyan army to target. But we are not in favour of escalation. We are in favour of opening doors to diplomacy,” he said.
Speaking to reporters in Brussels, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen sidestepped questions on whether more helicopters were needed in Libya, but said he would be reiterating calls for NATO allies to step up their involvement in Libya during a NATO defence ministers meeting this week.
“In general terms, I will request broad support for our operation in Libya, if possible increased contributions, if possible more flexible use of the assets provided,” he said.
Britain, along with France, has been the driving force behind the NATO military intervention. British Foreign Minister William Hague travelled to Benghazi at the weekend and called on the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) to establish a detailed plan for how they it will run Libya after Gaddafi’s departure, to avoid the kind of chaos unleashed in Iraq.
Western governments and rebels say a combination of NATO air strikes, diplomatic isolation and grassroots opposition will eventually bring an end to the Libyan leader’s rule.
Gaddafi says he has no intention of stepping down. He insists he is supported by all Libyans apart from a minority of “rats” and al Qaeda militants and says the NATO intervention is designed to steal Libya’s abundant oil.
“ROLLOVERS” COULD GO ON
NATO last week decided to extend operations in Libya for another 90 days, or until the end of September.
“We are going to do this until we succeed. Ninety days is a rollover. If we need to roll it over again we will roll it over again,” a senior U.S. official said in Brussels.
Rasmussen also said NATO has made “considerable progress” so far in diminishing Gaddafi’s military capabilities.
“Gaddafi has lost his grip over much of the country … and every day those closest to him are defecting. He is increasingly isolated at home and abroad,” he said. adding that NATO had damaged or destroyed almost 1,800 legitimate military targets.
The Libya contact group of Western and Arab countries agreed in May to provide millions of dollars in non-military aid to help the rebels keep services and the economy running.
They meet on Thursday in the United Arab Emirates to discuss the rebel transition road map and make “concrete announcements”, a Western diplomatic source said.
In Tripoli, Gaddafi media officials on Monday took reporters to a compound of colonial-era buildings on the Mediterranean that had been bombed overnight, for at least the third time.
The building hit in the most recent strike had been reduced to rubble. Kaim said it contained offices of various government bodies, including the speaker of parliament’s headquarters, and was not a military target. He said no one was killed there.
(Additional reporting by Sherine El Madany in Benghazi, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Elizabeth Pineau in Paris; writing and additional reporting by John Irish in Rabat; editing by Tim Cocks and xx)