Fighting flares in Libya as Kadhafi spurns truce

Fighting flared around the rebel-held city of Misrata and air strikes were reported elsewhere in Libya late Friday, after Moamer Kadhafi's regime rejected a rebel offer of a ceasefire.

The US military was poised to withdraw its combat jets and Tomahawk cruise missiles from the air campaign against Libya's regime starting this weekend, as NATO allies take the lead in bombing Kadhafi's forces.

Libyan rebels gather at the entrance to the strategic oil town of Brega

The move follows pledges by President Barack Obama to quickly shift command of the operation to NATO, with the US military playing a supporting role -- providing planes for mid-air refueling, jamming and surveillance.

Coalition forces, meanwhile, strafed positions held by loyalist forces in the Al Khums and Al Rojban regions east and southwest of the capital Tripoli late Friday, according to Libyan state television.

An Al Khums resident told AFP he heard explosions coming from a local naval base, about 120 kilometres (70 miles) east of the capital, which had been bombed by coalition forces earlier.

Al Rojban is southwest of Tripoli and several towns in the mountainous area are controlled by rebel forces.

Forces loyal to Kadhafi also attacked the rebel-held city of Misrata with tanks and rocket fire, a rebel spokesman said.

In the rebel bastion of Benghazi, Transitional National Council leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil said the opposition was ready for a truce, provided Kadhafi's forces end their assaults on rebel-held cities.

But government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim rejected the offer, saying Kadhafi's forces would not withdraw from towns they control.

"The rebels never offered peace. They don't offer peace, they are making impossible demands," Ibrahim told reporters, calling the truce offer a "trick."

"We will not leave our cities. We are the government, not them," he said, adding however that the government was always ready to negotiate and wanted peace.

Asked about the truce offer, White House spokesman Jay Carney appeared to indicate that President Barack Obama's administration did not want the conflict in Libya to end with Kadhafi still in power.

Abdul Jalil's offer came two days after rebels were driven out of a string of key oil terminals in eastern Libya they had twice seized during the weeks-old revolt aimed at toppling Kadhafi's 41-year-old regime.

"We agree on a ceasefire on the condition that our brothers in the western cities have freedom of expression and that the forces besieging the cities withdraw," he told reporters after meeting UN special envoy Abdul Ilah Khatib.

He added, however, that the revolution still aimed to topple the regime.

Khatib said he had met top officials of Kadhafi's government in Tripoli on Thursday to call for a ceasefire, lifting the siege of the western cities and access for humanitarian aid.

He called for a "real ceasefire" that must be "credible, effective and verifiable."

After weeks of near anarchy, the Benghazi-based leaders of the insurrection appeared intent on cleaning up their act -- keeping civilians and raw recruits away from the frontlines in an attempt to combat the better-organised Kadhafi loyalists.

At the western entrance to Ajdabiya, 54-year-old reservist Abdelkarim Mansouri explained the "new tactic."

"We don't want any more kids to die. War is not a game. These are the orders of the military council," he said.

Since the conflict began, the rebel ranks have been a motley crew of undisciplined brawlers, held together only by the lone desert highway.

One rebel said that since Thursday night, vital reinforcements and heavy weaponry from all over eastern Libya have been heading for the frontline.

Rebels prevented reporters and civilians from leaving the strategic town of Ajdabiya for Brega, a key oil town about 80 kilometres (50 miles) to the west where fighting erupted early Friday, but it was unclear exactly where the frontline was or who controlled the refinery town.

Three days of fighting around Brega have left 11 people dead, including eight civilians, according to estimates.

A doctor and a manager at the hospital in Ajdabiya reported five civilians killed on Wednesday, three more on Thursday and three rebels died on Friday.

The rebels had been beaten back by heavy shelling from Kadhafi's forces when they launched a counter-offensive at Brega in a bid to resume their march on Tripoli, started soon after the uprising began on February 15.

Rebel commanders called for more air strikes by coalition forces enforcing a UN-mandated no-fly zone over Libya, but the US military's top officer said bad weather was hampering the air campaign.

Without air support, the ill-equipped rebels were pushed back 200 kilometres (125 miles) from the key oil hub of Ras Lanuf on Wednesday all the way east of Brega, where they regrouped on Thursday for the counter-offensive.

The rebels' call for heavy armaments to match the superior firepower of Kadhafi's army, meanwhile, have been greeted with little enthusiam by western powers.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates asserted the rebels needed training more than guns but suggested other nations do that job.

His French counterpart Gerard Longuet said providing weapons was not part of the UN mandate, and NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen also ruled out such a move.

"We are there to protect the Libyan people, not to arm people," Rasmussen said.

The rebels said they have signed a deal with Qatar to market their crude oil abroad in exchange for food, medicine and -- they hope -- weapons.

Ali al-Tarhoni, a senior member of the Transitional National Council in charge of oil and finance, said that under a "barter" deal aimed at circumventing international sanctions, Qatar would market the oil and buy humanitarian supplies for the rebels.

The rebels hoped to use oil revenues to procure weapons -- "any kind of arms we can get to," he added.

AFP

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