A counteroffensive by Libya's leader in the rebel-controlled east fails, as clashes continue around the country. Leader Moammar Gadhafi warns that any foreign interference will spark bloodshed.
Gadhafi opponents are arming themselves for the fight
The Libyan leader warned the West against intervening to support the rebellion against him. Gadhafi said Libyans would fight to the "last man and last woman" against foreigners.
"We will enter a bloody war and thousands and thousands of Libyans will die if the United States enters or NATO enters," Gadhafi said, speaking live on state television on Wednesday.
However, at a news conference in Benghazi, the rebel National Libyan Council called for UN-backed air strikes on foreign mercenaries used by Gadhafi against his own people. Hafiz Ghoga, a spokesman for the council based in the rebel-held city of Benghazi, told a news conference Gadhafi was using "African mercenaries in Libyan cities" which amounted to an invasion of the oil producing North African nation.
"We call for specific attacks on strongholds of these mercenaries," he said, but added: "The presence of any foreign forces on Libyan soil is strongly opposed. There is a big difference between this and strategic air strikes."
"The call will be on the United Nations and on any organisation supporting the Feb. 17 revolution to have air strikes on the places and strongholds of the mercenaries ... used against civilians," Ghoga said.
A former Libyan justice minister, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, will be chairman of the National Libyan Council which will have 30 members and be based in Benghazi for now but would later move to Tripoli, Ghoga added.
ICC launches probe
Meanwhile the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague said it would open a formal investigation into possible crimes against humanity committed by Gadhafi's regime. The court had started a preliminary probe Monday and, after reviewing the evidence, had come to the conclusion that "an investigation is warranted."
Earlier in the day, rebels repulsed an attack by Gadhafi's forces in the strategic eastern city of Brega. In a major counteroffensive, forces armed with tanks and heavy artillery stormed the city in an attempt to gain control of a key oil installation and airstrip on the coast. Opposition forces said they were able to push back the attack, despite heavy clashes.
"They tried to take Brega this morning, but they failed," Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the rebel February 17th Coalition, told news agency Reuters. "It is back in the hands of the revolutionaries. He is trying to create all kinds of psychological warfare to keep these cities on edge."
Libyan warplanes also launched airstrikes on the opposition-held town of Ajdabiya, 40 kilometers from Brega. However, it reportedly remained under the control of the protesters. People fired in the air and flashed victory signs in Ajdabiya after reports emerged that the counterattack had failed, an AFP journalist said.
Anti-Gadhafi forces have been firmly in charge of eastern Libya up to Brega and some areas beyond since shortly after the anti-government protests erupted in mid-February and have taken tentative steps toward setting up a parallel government. Gadhafi and his security forces remain largely in control of Tripoli. In the city of Benghazi, protesters undergoing military training at makeshift camps said they planned to march on the Libyan capital.
Arab League opposes foreign intervention
The USS Kearsarge is carrying marines and equipment to the region
Concerns regarding a foreign intervention in Libya are growing as two US warships entered the Mediterranean Sea en route to the region on Wednesday afternoon.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the ships were being sent for possible humanitarian efforts, and warned that "all of the options beyond the humanitarian assistance and evacuation are complex."
Western nations are debating a no-fly zone over Libya. However, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said military intervention would not happen without a clear UN mandate. British Prime Minister David Cameron, who said Britain would work with allies on preparations for a no-fly zone, said it was unacceptable that "Gadhafi can be murdering his own people using airplanes and helicopter gunships."
In Brussels, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso added his voice to those calling on Gadhafi to go immediately. "It is time for him to go and give the country back to the people of Libya, allowing democratic forces to chart out a future course," Barroso said, echoing a similar call by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton this week.
The European Union has more than tripled - to ten million euros (14 million dollars) - its humanitarian aid to help cope with Libya's refugee crisis, the head of the bloc's executive said Wednesday.
One voice of dissent has been Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who expressed solidarity with Gadhafi and warned against "imperial intervention". Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has also previously expressed support for the Libyan leader.
Meanwhile, the Arab League said Wednesday that it was opposed to any foreign involvement in Libya. The League's foreign ministers, who met in Cairo, issued a statement saying "the Libyan crisis was an internal Arab affair that did not require foreign intervention."
Humanitarian catastrophe looms
These Egyptian workers are trying to enter Tunisia after fleeing Libya
Tens of thousands of people are attempting to flee the conflict, threatening to trigger a humanitarian crisis. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Wednesday reiterated calls for hundreds of planes to help pluck to safety massive crowds milling at Libya's borders with Egypt and Tunisia.
"We can see acres of people waiting to cross the border," said Ayman Gharaibeh, head of the UNHCR emergency response team at the border. "Many have been waiting for three to four days in the freezing cold, with no shelter or food. Usually the first three days of the crisis are the worst. This seems to be getting worse by the day."
While the European Union scrambled to respond to the plea, France's foreign ministry announced it would send heavy-lift planes and a ship to Libya to help evacuate Egyptian refugees trying to leave the country.
Author: Michael Knigge/Sabina Casagrande (Reuters, dpa, AFP, AP)
Editor: Rob Mudge