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Libyan rebels fall back as pro-Gadhafi troops gain ground

Rebel fighters flee from the heavy firepower of Gadhafi's troops, highlighting their weakness without western airstrikes to tip the scales in their favor. Western nations meanwhile continue to debate arming rebel forces.

rebels on a pick up truck with guns

Libyan rebels are retreating

Forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi bombarded rebels with rockets and artillery on Wednesday, causing them to retreat east and cede oil towns as the Libyan leader's troops advanced. Rebels said Gadhafi's forces, which have overrun Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, were headed to another oil town, Brega.

News agencies reported that many rebels in pick-up trucks and other vehicles had pulled out of Brega and were moving on towards the main city of Ajdabiya. Rebel fighters said Gadhafi's troops swept through Ras Lanuf, strategically important because of its oil refinery, blazing away with tanks and heavy artillery fire soon after dawn.

The rebels are calling for coalition airstrikes against Gadhafi's forces.

"We want two things: that the planes drop bombs on Gadhafi's tanks and heavy artillery, and that they (the coalition forces) give us weapons so we can fight," rebel fighter Yunes Abdelghaim told AFP.

A spokesman for the rebel Transitional National Council, Mustafa Ghuriani, told reporters in Benghazi that "it would be naive to think we are not arming ourselves" to match the weaponry deployed by Gadhafi loyalists. But he declined to confirm or deny that France and the United States were offering to supply arms, saying only that unspecified "friendly nations" were backing the rebels.

British debate on arms backing

david cameron and hillary clinton

Cameron welcomed Hillary Clinton to the Libya conference on Tuesday

A heated debate erupted in the British parliament on Wednesday over possible arms supplies to rebel forces in Libya. British Prime Minister David Cameron refused to rule out arming the rebels after France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said at the London conference on Libya the previous day that France is prepared to hold discussions on the issue.

"We do not rule it out but we have not taken the decision to do so," Cameron told parliament after he was asked what Britain's policy was on arming the rebels, given the existence of a United Nations arms embargo on Libya.

However, senior Liberal Democrat Menzies Campbell said the legal position on arms sales was "by no means clear" and the political consequences of supplying the rebels with weapons were "difficult to predict."

Veteran left-wing Labour parliamentarian Denis Skinner urged Cameron not to repeat the "errors" of Afghanistan by arming rebel groups which were later found to have been infiltrated by al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.

Differing opinions

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow believed that foreign powers did not have the right to arm the rebels under the mandate approved by the UN Security Council.

Belgium, too, voiced its opposition to arming Libya's rebels, warning that the move could alienate Arab nations. Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere, whose country has deployed fighter jets as part of a NATO-led campaign to protect Libyan civilians, said providing weapons to the insurgents would be "a step too far."

"This would cost us the support of the Arab world," Vanackere said.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that, although UN sanctions prohibit the delivery of arms to Libya, the ban no longer applies. Previously, President Barack Obama had said he did not rule out arming the rebels.

"I'm not ruling it out. But I'm also not ruling it in," Obama said.

Author: Sabina Casagrande (AFP, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Susan Houlton

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