- Associated Press - Saturday, March 12, 2011

RAS LANOUF, Libya (AP) — Moammar Gadhafi tightened his grip Saturday on the coastal road linking his territory to the rebel-controlled east, pushing forward the front line in Libya’s grueling internal conflict and showing off control of devastated towns just seized from the opposition.

Arab nations debated whether to call for a Western no-fly zone to protect the rebels — deciding at a closed emergency Arab League meeting in Cairo whether to issue the endorsement that the U.S. and European nations say they need before acting.

“The League cannot remain idle, not taking responsibility for these events,” said Oman’s Foreign Minister Yousef Ben Alwi, who headed the meeting. He called on Arab League members to take a decision “now, before events race ahead of us.”

The Libyan government took reporters by plane and bus to the town of Bin Jawwad, the scene of brutal battles six days ago between insurgents and Gadhafi loyalists using artillery, rockets and helicopter gunships.

A police station was completely destroyed, its windows shattered, walls blackened and burned and broken furniture inside. A nearby school had gaping holes in the roof and a wall. Homes nearby were empty and cars were overturned or left as charred hulks in the road.

Rubble filled the streets and a sulphurous smell hung in the air.

The tour continued in Ras Lanouf, an oil port of boxy, sand-colored buildings with satellite dishes on top.

The area was silent and devoid of any sign of life, with laundry still fluttering on lines strung across balconies. About 50 soldiers in 10 white Toyota pickups, holding up portraits of Gadhafi, smeared with mud as camouflage guarded it. A playground was strewn with bullet casings and medical supplies looted from a nearby pharmacy whose doors had been shot open.

The defeat at Ras Lanouf, which had been captured by rebels a week ago and only fell after days of fierce fighting and shelling, was a major setback for opposition forces who just a week ago held the entire eastern half of the country and were charging toward the capital.

A massive column of black smoke billowed from a point further east.

Gen. Abdel-Fattah Younis, the country’s interior minister before defecting, told The Associated Press that Gadhafi’s forces had driven deeper into rebel territory than at any time since the opposition seized control of the east.

He said they were about 50 miles (77 kilometers) past Ras Lanouf and about 25 miles (40 kilometers) outside Brega, the site of a major oil terminal.

Younis vowed a comeback, saying “we should be back today or at the latest tomorrow.”

But fewer rebel supporters were seen by an Associated Press reporter in the area, suggesting morale had taken a hit as the momentum shifted in favor of the regime.

Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the head of the opposition’s interim governing council based in Benghazi, pleaded with the international community to approve a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Gadhafi’s forces from launching air attacks and to impose restrictions that would bar the longtime Libya leader from bringing in more weapons and foreign fighters.

The rebels also sent a delegation to Cairo to lobby for a no-fly zone at the Arab League. The Arab League’s member states are divided over how to deal with the Libyan crisis, signaling it would be a tough debate.

Rebel spokeswoman Tahani Suleiman said the group had met with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and he had promised to support the idea. That could not be confirmed, but Moussa was quoted in the German weekly Der Spiegel as advocating a no-fly zone, though he conceded it wasn’t clear who would impose it and how.

“The Arab League also can play a role in this — I would favor that,” he said.

Asked if he supports an international intervention in an Arab country, Moussa replied: “you are talking about … a military intervention. I am talking about a humanitarian action. It is about standing by the Libyan people with a no-fly zone in their fight for freedom against an increasingly inhumane regime.”

The Arab League doesn’t have executive powers to impose a no-fly zone, but its approval would offer regional support for such a move by the West. The 22-member organization represents most Arab countries in the region, including many led by autocratic rulers who so far have hesitated to condemn Gadhafi’s harsh crackdown on the rebels.

The European Union, which has said any such decision would need sufficient diplomatic backing from the Arab League and other regional organizations, sent its foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, to Cairo for the meeting.

The Obama administration has said a no-fly zone may have limited impact, and there is far from international agreement on it.

It would require U.S. and possibly allies’ aircraft to first attack Libya’s anti-aircraft defenses, a move tantamount to starting war.

Gadhafi has warned the United States and other Western powers not to intervene, saying thousands in his country would die and “we will turn Libya into another Vietnam.”

Government forces also have recaptured the strategic town of Zawiya, near Tripoli, sealing off a corridor around the capital, which has been Gadhafi’s main stronghold.

They took reporters Friday to Zawiya’s main square, which had been a key center of resistance to the west of the capital. It bore the scars of battle and the streets were lined with tanks as loyalists waving green flags rallied amid a heavy presence of uniformed pro-Gadhafi troops and snipers. There was talk of rebel bodies having been bulldozed away, and the dome and minaret of the nearby mosque were demolished.


Ryan Lucas in Bayda, Libya and Diaa Hadid in Cairo and Michael Michael in Tripoli contributed to this report.

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