Libya’s opposition battled for military and diplomatic advantage against Muammar Gaddafi’s embattled regime today, winning official recognition from France and hitting government forces with heavy weapons on the road to the capital.
France became the first country to formally recognise the rebels’ newly created Interim Governing Council, saying it planned to exchange ambassadors after President Nicolas Sarkozy met with two representatives of the group based in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. Germany said it froze billions in assets of the Libyan Central Bank and other state-run agencies.
“The brutal suppression of the Libyan freedom movement can now no longer be financed from funds that are in German banks,” Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle said.
Both sides in Libya are lobbying for support from Western countries as their leaders debate whether to protect the rebels from Gaddafi’s air force by putting a no-fly zone over some or all of the country. Britain and France have backed the rebels’ calls for a no-fly zone, but the Obama adminstration has expressed deep reservations about involvement in another conflict in the greater Middle East.
The international Red Cross said dozens of civilians have been wounded or killed in recent days in gruelling battles between Gaddafi’s army and the opposition movement trying to oust him.
The fighting intensified on the main front line between the Mediterranean oil port of Ras Lanouf and the city of Bin Jawwad, where the rebels appeared to be have established better supply lines bringing heavy weapons like multiple-rocket launcher trucks and small tanks to the battle.
Youssef Fittori, a major in the opposition force, said a mix of defectors from Gaddafi’s special forces and civilain rebels were fighting government forces about 15km west of Ras Lanouf on the main coastal road to Bin Jawwad.
“Today, God willing, we will take Bin Jawwad. We are moving forward,” he said.
Fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi around Ras Lanouf set two oil installations ablaze yesterday and inflicted yet more damage on Libya’s crippled energy industry.
In the west, Gaddafi claimed victory in recapturing Zawiya, the city closest to the capital that had fallen into opposition hands. Western journalists based in Tripoli were taken late yesterday to a stadium on the outskirts of Zawiya that was filled with Gaddafi loyalists waving green flags in a similar scene, complete with fireworks. Libyan TV cameras filmed the celebrations as food, drinks and cooking oil were distributed.
Government escorts refused journalists’ requests to visit the city’s main square; phone lines there have not been working during a deadly, six-day siege.
Red Cross President Jakob Kellenberger said local doctors over the past few days saw a sharp increase in casualties arriving at hospitals in Ajdabiya, in the rebel-held east, and Misrata, in government territory.
Both places saw heavy fighting and air strikes, he said.
Kellenberger said 40 patients were treated for serious injuries in Misrata and 22 dead were taken there.
He said the Red Cross surgical team in Ajdabiya operated on 55 wounded over the past week and “civilians are bearing the brunt of the violence”.
He said the aid organisation is cut off from access in western areas including Tripoli but believes those are “even more severely affected by the fighting” than eastern rebel-held territories. Agencies