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Mon 1 Aug 2011 06:03 PM

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Libyans start Ramadan fast amid conflict, divisions

Long battle has sapped the energy of rival fighting groups and their foreign backers

Libyans start Ramadan fast amid conflict, divisions

Libyans on both sides of the front line began fasting for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on Monday with no sign of any let-up in the five-month conflict that has divided their country.

Several explosions rocked the capital, Tripoli, overnight as the NATO coalition vowed to push on with a bombing campaign which is meant to protect civilians but is also supporting rebels trying to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Holding firm despite growing international isolation and crippling financial sanctions, Gaddafi sought to play on potential divisions by calling on tribes and soldiers in rebel-controlled areas to rise up and free their cities.

But in the eastern stronghold of Benghazi, businesses have pledged to keep sending food and supplies to the front line to supply a rebellion that now controls about half the country but has struggled to make a significant breakthrough in weeks.

Fayza, a middle-aged woman wearing a headscarf, said after shopping with her husband in Benghazi: "The prices have gone up and there is a bit of cost cutting because of the delayed salaries, but despite that we are happy. This Ramadan feels different, there is freedom this time. We miss the people we have lost, but our hope is freedom."

After a torrid week in their eastern bastion, where they had to fight off a pocket of Gaddafi loyalists and saw their military commander assassinated, apparently by allied gunmen, the Western-backed rebels have sought to put divisions behind them and retake the initiative.

The insurgents advanced on Tiji, the last government stronghold in the Western Mountains, Zlitan, 160 km (100 miles) east of Tripoli, and Brega, a key oil town protected by some 3,000 heavily armed Gaddafi forces.

Despite controlling vast swathes of territory and winning broadening international recognition, potentially freeing up billions of dollars in frozen funds, splits within the anti-Gaddafi camp are raising concerns over instability and sustained trouble even if the rebels end his 41-year rule.

In a sign of the mounting toll of the conflict, 25 dead bodies were found on a boat carrying nearly 300 African migrants from Libya that arrived on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa on Monday.

Thousands of people, many of them migrants from sub-Saharan Africa fleeing turmoil across North Africa, not just Libya, have sailed to Italy in rickety boats in recent months.

The UN refugee agency has said one in 10 migrants fleeing conflict in Libya by sea is likely to drown or die from hunger or exhaustion in appalling conditions during the crossing.

Amid religious music marking the start of Ramadan, Libyan state television broadcast a statement by Defence Minister Abubakr Yunus Jaber urging members of the army who joined rebels in the east to rejoin the fold and "liberate Benghazi".

"We know that you are forced to do things that are against your principles and the traditions of the Libyan people ... such deeds are covered by the general pardon [issued by Gaddafi]."

Gaddafi on Sunday also urged members of the Warfalla tribe, one of Libya's largest, to march peacefully toward the rebel stronghold of Misrata and "liberate" the city.

Benghazi has been awash with speculation over the killing last week of General Abdel Fattah Younes, a former Gaddafi security minister who defected to the rebels early in the war.

Some suspect his execution was ordered by rebel leaders for treason, many say he was killed by Gaddafi spies, and others suggest a rebel splinter group had acted alone.

Either way, the killing was an embarrassment for the rebels and their Western backers, and analysts said it pointed to at best the rebel's loose grip on territory they hold but may also herald divisions and chaos even if Gaddafi was removed.

In an apparent effort to avert a feud, rebels named Suleiman al-Obeidi, a member of Younes' tribe, as acting military chief.

Libya's conflict, which some had hoped might be over in weeks once NATO started bombing Gaddafi targets in March, has dragged on into Ramadan, sapping the energy of fighters on the ground and potentially the enthusiasm of their foreign backers.

Aside from sporadic gunfire, there was little action on the battlefield in the west on Monday morning.

Rebel fighters had pulled about 8 km (5 miles) back from Tiji due to a sandstorm, and were cleaning their guns as they sought shelter from the baking sun.

Despite fighting and fasting in the heat, a 33-year-old fighter called Sagher said he relished the challenge.

"If I die fighting Gaddafi I would rather be a martyr who is fasting. It would be a far better martyrdom because I am observing Ramadan," he said, the remains of a camel eaten the night before lying nearby.

Fortunes have see-sawed in Libya's war, with rebels swiftly seizing vast tracts of the country but then losing them when Gaddafi's better organised and armed forces counter-attacked.

Both France and Britain, leading members of the NATO coalition, sought over the weekend to ease concerns that Western capitals will lose the stomach for a sustained conflict, and said that they would keep up the tempo of military operations.

France is having to withdraw the coalition's only aircraft carrier for maintenance, but Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said France would move its Rafale fighter jets to a NATO base in Sicily, giving it closer access to targets in Tripoli.

And British Defence Minister Liam Fox said that London would take part in the bombing campaign for as long as needed.

"There's only one message we should be sending to the (Libyan) regime and that is that we have both the military capability and the resolve to continue pursuing and fulfilling United Nations resolution 1973 as long as is required," Fox told BBC radio in comments broadcast on Sunday.

The UN resolution authorised military intervention but some nations believe NATO has gone too far in backing the rebels by trying to oust, or even kill Gaddafi.

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abdul hafeez sheikh 9 years ago

I request all my Libyan Muslim Brothers to stop fighting in Month of Ramadan . This month is month of prayers , and love and harmony among all the Muslim Brothers . At least their fighting will not bring any happiness to the common Libyan peace lovign citizen