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Libya Update: Artillery Fire Drives Rebels Back From Brega; Leaders Slam NATO

Posted on | April 5, 2011 | 3 Comments

Reports from several news organizations indicate that Libyan rebels, who had been attempting to re-take the oil town of Brega, have retreated after an intense artillery barrage from forces loyal to Moammar Qaddafi’s regime. Associated Press:

BREGA, Libya – Libyan government forces unleashed a withering bombardment of rebels outside a key oil town Tuesday as an Obama administration envoy met with the opposition leadership in its de facto capital, a possible step toward diplomatic recognition. . . .
On the coastal road leading from the east to Tripoli, the rebels had managed to take part of the oil town of Brega on Monday, aided by an international air campaign. But the rocket and artillery salvos unleashed on the rebels Tuesday indicated the government’s offensive capabilities remain very much intact. . . .
Rebel attempts to fire rockets and mortars against the government forces were met with aggressive counter bombardments that sent many of the rebel forces scrambling back all the way to the town of Ajdabiya . . .

Confirmation from the Financial Times:

Pro-Gaddafi forces pounded rebel positions near Brega on Tuesday, forcing opposition fighters into their biggest retreat for days.

The setback came amid criticism of NATO from rebel leaders, the New York Times reports:

BREGA, Libya — Forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi battered rebel fighters on the road outside this strategic oil town on Tuesday with rocket fire, mortars and artillery, driving them many miles to the north and leaving them in disarray. . . .
Abdul Fattah Younes, the head of the rebel army, lashed out at NATO during a news conference in Benghazi on Tuesday, accusing it of indecision and lengthy delays in carrying out needed airstrikes. “What is NATO doing?” he said “Civilians are dying every day. They use the excuse of collateral damage.” . . .

How far the rebels have retreated, and whether the Qaddafi forces will pursue them, is unclear from these initial reports.

UPDATE: Ajdabiya is about 50 miles up the coast from Brega, so if much of the rebel force has fallen back that far, it would indicate a serious setback.

UPDATE II: In a report datelined from Ajdabiya, a correspondent for the UK Independent reports:

Meanwhile the rebel government’s military forces suffered another reverse. An artillery barrage by regime troops drove back the rebels 25kms from the city of Brega. The rebels have been attempting to take back the oil ports of Brega and Ras Lanuf after Western air strikes stopped an advance by regime troops. However, ineptitude by the revolutionaries has led to failure.
International coalition aircraft attacked regime forces outside Brega yesterday, but the rebels criticised Nato for being too slow to act. “Either Nato does its work properly or I will ask the [rebel] national council to raise the matter with the Security Council,” said Abdel Fattah Younes, head of the rebel forces, at a news conference in Benghazi in the rebel-held east.He said Nato’s inaction was allowing forces loyal to Colonel Gaddafi to advance and letting them kill the people of the rebel-held city of Misrata “every day”.

This indicates that the rebels have not retreated all the way to Ajdabiya, but we still don’t know exactly where the front line is now.

UPDATE III: Starting to look like a “fog of war” situation. Libya is about 6 hours ahead of Eastern time in the U.S. (i.e., at 11 p.m. ET, it’s 5 a.m. the next morning in Libya), and it might be Wednesday before we have anything like a clear picture of what has happened.

While these initial reports indicate a pretty substantial retreat, the question is whether Qaddafi’s forces are following up in pursuit to threaten Ajdabiya. Perhaps this reported “retreat” is just a rear-echelon rumor, spread by some  portion of the rebel forces who panicked under fire. For the Qaddafi troops to advance 5o miles on open road would expose them to NATO air attack. But given the rebel complaints about NATO, this air cover may not be very effective.

UPDATE IV: This just in — and datelined “east of Brega” — from Charles Levinson of the Wall Street Journal:

Rebels sharpened their criticism of what they said was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s failure to provide effective air support, as pro-Gadhafi forces drove eastward Tuesday, bombarding newly reorganized rebel forces with artillery. . . .
In Libya, Rebel forces had held their lines on the outskirts of Brega for three days, since they counterattacked the city Friday night.
But on Tuesday morning they woke up to a withering counterattack by Col. Gadhafi’s forces that drove them out of the city. By noon, the most forward rebel positions appeared to sit about 12 miles east of the city.

OK, then: By noon Tuesday (which was 14 hours before the story was published), the rebels had pulled back their forward positions about 12 miles, which is to say, out of range of Qaddafi’s artillery in Brega. But there is no indication that Qaddafi’s forces have advanced up the road toward Ajdabiya.


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