Cairo/Benghazi, March 18 (DPA) Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi threatened retaliation against forces in the Mediterranean Sea for any foreign intervention in the country, as he launched fresh airstrikes against the opposition stronghold of Benghazi.
“All military and civilian air and sea vessels in the Mediterranean Sea will become targets of the Libyan retaliation,” a spokesperson for the military told Libyan media.
The statement came hours ahead of a possible UN Security Council vote on a draft resolution imposing a no-fly zone over Libya.
Meanwhile, opposition forces in the eastern city of Benghazi claimed they had shot down two of Gaddafi’s fighter jets.
Gun shots could be heard in the background as Benghazi opposition member and resident Nizar described in a phone interview with DPA how two government fighter jets were shot down by rebel forces, one of which had bombed the runway of the city’s international airport.
Nizar, who declined to give his last name, told DPA that both pilots were killed in the rebels’ counter-attack.
The US said Gaddafi’s ground forces were believed to be around 160 km away from Benghazi, Al Arabiya reported.
Earlier in the day, General Mohamed Abdelhamid, who defected in order to head rebel forces, told DPA that he is among over 50 officers commanding rebels on the ground in an effort to oust Gaddafi after nearly 42 years in power.
A number of soldiers and officers have joined the opposition and are trying to help the rebels, despite not having access to the same level of weaponry and aircraft used by Gaddafi’s forces.
“The Libyan people will decide the future of Libya, not Gaddafi,” vowed Abdelhamid.
Speaking from the rebel stronghold city of Benghazi, Abdelhamid said the city was tightly guarded by opposition forces, dismissing claims by Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, that it would be conquered by Friday.
Meanwhile, the UN Security Council resumed a closed-door discussion on a draft resolution to impose a no-fly zone
A vote by the 15-nation council could be held later Thursday, if the draft was to be completed on time for the action.
Libyan rebels have suggested that the opposition’s National Council – based in Benghazi – could welcome assistance to also bomb Gaddafi’s military points, but strongly opposes foreign troops inside Libya.
Members of the opposition, however, said they were disappointed by the reluctance of several foreign ministers of the Group of Eight (G8) nations this week to endorse a no-fly zone.
“We were hoping the United States and Germany, in particular, would make a humanitarian decision, a decision on the side of the Libyan people,” said Abdelhamid.
The Libyan opposition, many of whom were emboldened by neighbouring Arab uprisings, had hoped that by their 30th day of fighting, a no-fly zone would be in place to quell Gaddafi’s air attacks.
According to the opposition National Front for the Salvation of Libya, Gaddafi’s loyalists launched attacks on the western city of Yefren, “shooting randomly at civilians.”
Gaddafi’s forces also stepped up attacks in the western city of Misurata, the country’s third most populated city after the capital Tripoli and Benghazi.
A witness speaking to broadcaster Al Arabiya said that at least 30 people were killed in the day’s attacks, including women and children. Another witness told the broadcaster that at least 18 civilians were among the dead.
The National Conference of the Libyan Opposition said that rebels captured five of Gaddafi’s soldiers after a fierce battle in eastern Misurata.
The city is some 200 km east of the capital Tripoli and is home to several hundred thousand people.
There were also reports that communication to Benghazi, Derna, Bayda and other northeastern cities had been cut Thursday evening.