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Mon 7 Mar 2011 03:13 PM

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Libyan plane hits town, over 1m people need aid

Gov't forces strike at rebels in east of country as concern grows for civilian suffering

Libyan plane hits town, over 1m people need aid
Libyan rebel fighters take cover as a bomb dropped by an airforce fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf
Libyan plane hits town, over 1m people need aid
Libyan rebel fighters gather at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf on March 7, 2011
Libyan plane hits town, over 1m people need aid
Libyan rebel fighters gather at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf on March 7, 2011
Libyan plane hits town, over 1m people need aid
Libyan rebel fighters flash the victory sign as they gather at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf on March 7, 2011

Government forces

struck at rebels in Libya's east and were reported attacking a

town near Tripoli on Monday as concern grew over civilian

suffering and a growing refugee exodus.

The United Nations said more than one million people fleeing

Libya and inside the country needed humanitarian aid, and

conditions in rebel-held Misrata town were particularly worrying

following attacks on it by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi.

Offering a potential olive branch to rebels seeking to end

Gaddafi's long rule, one of his associates appealed to

opposition chiefs for dialogue, in a sign the ageing autocrat

may be ready to compromise with the unprecedented revolt.

The offer, rapidly dismissed by rebels, coincided with

warnings by Gaddafi that if he fell thousands of refugees from

Libya would "invade Europe".

Swiss-based exile group Libyan Human Rights Solidarity said

forces loyal to Gaddafi had launched a new attempt to capture

Zawiyah, a rebel-held town 50 km (30 miles) west of the capital.

It was impossible to verify the report because residents in

the town who had been speaking to journalists by telephone were

no longer reachable.

In the rebel-held city of Misrata, the wounded were being

treated on hospital floors because of a catastrophic shortage of

medical facilities in the besieged city, a resident said.

Misrata is the biggest city in the west not under the

control of Gaddafi, and its stand against a militia commanded by

his own son has turned it into a symbol of defiance.

Units of the 32nd brigade, which is led by Khamis Gaddafi,

on Sunday launched the fiercest attack on Misrata so far, with a

doctor there saying at least 18 people had been killed. Rebels

said they repelled the attack.

In the east, a warplane launched an air strike on the

outskirts of the rebel-held oil terminal town of Ras Lanuf 600

km (400 miles) east of the capital Tripoli, witnesses said.

"There was an aircraft, it fired two rockets there were no

deaths," Mokhtar Dobrug, a rebel fighter who witnessed the

strike, told Reuters.

The attack fitted the pattern of much of the fighting, which

has been erratic, with small groups engaging each other,

guerrilla-style, in hit and run raids. Air attacks have been

fitful and the bombing often inaccurate.

In some areas, advantage on the ground has swung back and

forth without conclusive result.

But the resilience of Gaddafi's troops in the face of

protests which started in mid-February and their ability to

launch a counter-attack has raised the prospect that the country

is heading for prolonged bloodshed.

"It's clear the government feels a sense of momentum on its

side," said military analyst Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow

at Britain's Royal United Services Institute.

"Government forces have more mobility than the rebels thanks

to airlift and a decent amount of road transport.

"That's blunted by the fact that we are seeing extremely

poor fighting skills by government forces, and reasonably

competent fighting by the rebels."

The United Nations and the European Union are dispatching

fact-finding missions to the north African nation, where reports

by residents of attacks on civilians by security forces have

triggered a war crimes probe and provoked global outrage.

Tens of thousands have fled across the border to Tunisia

since the uprising prompted a violent crackdown by security

forces.

In Geneva, UN aid coordinator Valerie Amos said more than

a million people fleeing Libya and inside the country need

humanitarian aid.

Amos made clear that her first priority was Misrata, a town

of 300,000 which residents said had been attacked at the weekend

by government forces with tanks and missiles.

"Humanitarian organisations need urgent access now," said

Amos, who was in areas of Tunisia along the Libyan border at the

weekend. "People are injured and dying and need help

immediately."

The rebels have called for U.N.-backed air strikes against

what they say are African soldiers-for-hire used by Gaddafi to

crush the uprising against his 41-year-old rule.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a visit to

Afghanistan, said any foreign military intervention in the

crisis in Libya should have international backing.

The Libyan government says it is fighting against al Qaeda

terrorists and maintains that its security forces have targeted

only armed individuals attacking state institutions and depots.

Witnesses said government forces advanced on rebel-held Ras

Lanuf in a counter-attack that forced residents to flee and

rebels to hide their weapons in the desert.

In Ras Lanuf, one angry man told rebels to go home, arguing

that they were bringing fighting closer to oil terminals.

Another complained of the rebels' inexperience, as one

opposition fighter lay on his back and fired an automatic weapon

at a government warplane flying overhead.

"Look at the way they're firing at the plane," he said.

"They have no experience, no leadership and no strategy."

The army was moving down the Mediterranean coastal road east

of the recaptured town of Bin Jawad, heading towards Ras Lanuf

which is about 60 km (40 miles) away, witnesses told Reuters.

Residents of Ras Lanuf, fearing assault by the army, were

leaving in cars laden with belongings on Monday and rebels said

they had moved weapons into the desert for safekeeping.

As the rival combatants squared off, the authorities

launched an appeal to the rebels in the east for dialogue, in

the clearest overture yet to their opponents.

Jadallah Azous Al-Talhi, a Libyan prime minister in the

1980s who is originally from eastern Libya, appeared on state

television reading an address to elders in Benghazi.

He asked them to "give a chance to national dialogue to

resolve this crisis, to help stop the bloodshed, and not give a

chance to foreigners to come and capture our country again."

Ahmed Jabreel, an aide to rebel leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil,

said: "Any negotiations must be on the basis that Gaddafi will

step down. There can be no other compromise."

In an interview with the France 24 television station,

Gaddafi said Libya was an important partner for the West in

containing al Qaeda and illegal migrants trying to reach Europe.

"There are millions of blacks who could come to the

Mediterranean to cross to France and Italy, and Libya plays a

role in security in the Mediterranean," he said.

As the conflict escalated in Libya, U.S. crude oil rose to a

2-1/2-year high on Monday.

US crude for April  rose as much as $1.90 to $106.32

a barrel, the highest price since September 2008, heightening

concerns that high energy prices may derail the global economic

recovery. Shipping sources said the unrest had forced the oil

ports of Brega and Ras Lanuf to close.

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