RAS LANUF, Libya — The United Nations on Monday appointed a new envoy to Libya and said it would dispatch a humanitarian team as rebels struggled to hold ground in fierce clashes with Muammar Gaddafi’s forces.
Jordanian former foreign minister Abdelilah Al-Khatib would “undertake urgent consultations with the authorities in Tripoli,” the U.N. said in a statement.
It said U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon had spoken with Libya’s foreign minister, Musa Kusa, and was “deeply concerned about the fighting in western Libya, which is claiming large numbers of lives and threatens even more carnage in the days ahead.”
Rebels have been attempting to hold off heavy retaliation from Gaddafi’s forces as the anti-government uprising in Libya moves into its third week. The weekend saw rebel advances from their eastern strongholds checked on the road to Tripoli.
Gaddafi’s forces appeared to escalate their counteroffensive on Sunday as they launched attacks on rebel-held cities and used helicopters and fighter planes to push back opposition forces from the town of Bin Jawwad.
On Monday there were reports Bin Jawwad had fallen to Gaddafi’s men.
The response seems to increase the likelihood that Libya is headed for a protracted civil war rather than the kind of fast, people-powered revolution that recently brought down regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, GlobalPost correspondent Nicole Sobecki, reporting from Ras Lanuf — scene of heavy fighting over the past few days — said the retaliation by Gaddafi’s men had left dozens dead or injured and severely dented rebel confidence.
“You saw guys coming back in big trucks, some of them were crying,” she said. “There was a lot of anger, they were very upset. There is definitely a sense of fear about where this will go.”
Gaddafi forces also attacked Misrata, the largest town controlled by rebels outside the opposition-held east of the country, over the weekend. The rebels resisted tanks and heavy artillery using machine guns and sticks, CNN reported.
With medics at Misrata’s hospital reporting 42 killed — 17 from the opposition and 25 pro-Gaddafi fighters — and 85 wounded, there were concerns over an apparent blockade of humanitarian and medical aid to the town.
“People are injured and dying and need help immediately,” U.N. emergency relief co-ordinator Valerie Amos said. “I call on the authorities to provide access without delay to allow aid workers to help save lives.”
Witnesses in Misrata said the fighting lasted for at least six hours on Sunday, with many civilian targets bearing the brunt.
“They bombed all the houses with heavy weapons,” a doctor told the BBC. “They intentionally gunned and exploded our drug store. They bombed even around our hospital but fortunately nobody was injured. More than five mosques which I know are bombed.”
Rebels also held back a determined assault by Gaddafi’s forces on the town of Zawiya, 30 miles west of Tripoli, even as the government was claiming victory there and in Misrata.
Thousands of Gaddafi supporters thronged Tripoli’s central Green Square on Sunday to celebrate in front of the international media, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“The demonstrators also circled the area in cars as they fired guns into the air, a seeming attempt to rally regime supporters ahead of dark days as the rebels continue their fight,” it said, reporting that victory claims were later rescinded on state television.
There was continued debate both inside and outside of Libya over the need for foreign military intervention, with several influential U.S. senators expressing cautious support for the imposition of a no-fly zone over the country.
“[We should] prepare a no-fly zone in conjunction with our allies, not implement it. Certainly, [the] first hope would be, if it were called on, to be done only in the context of international agreement and sanction,” Democrat John F. Kerry told CBS television’s “Face the Nation.”
Senior Republican John McCain told ABC television’s “This Week” that a no-fly zone would send a message Gaddafi and encourage rebels, while fellow Republican Mitch McConnel proposed aiding and arming the rebels.
The campaign for international action was, however, dealt a setback by an undercover operation involving British special forces that ended in farce.
Six elite Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers and two MI6 agents they were protecting on a secret mission to make contact with opposition forces in their stronghold of Benghazi wound up captured by rebels alarmed at their arrival.
To add to the humiliation, a telephone call to secure their eventual release made by British envoy to Libyan Richard Northern was intercepted and leaked by authorities in Tripoli.
British media said the incident was not only a major embarrassment to the country’s government but could undermine rebel claims that the Libyan uprising was not influenced by foreign powers.
Officials in rebel organizing committees in Benghazi were critical of the clandestine mission. One committee member, Essam Gheriani, told the Guardian: “We don’t want new enemies, but this is no way to make contact.”
— Nicole Sobecki, Hanna Ingber Win, Barry Neild