TRIPOLI, (Reuters) – The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant Monday for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and rebels trying to oust him said their forces had advanced to within 80 km (50 miles) of the capital Tripoli.
The court approved warrants for Gaddafi as well as his son Saif al-Islam and Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi on charges of crimes against humanity. ICC prosecutors allege they were involved in the killing of protesters who rose up in February against Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.
Celebrations erupted in Benghazi after the ICC ruling. People honked their car horns, waved flags, fired shots into the air and flashed victory signs in the street
Gaddafi has “absolute, ultimate and unquestioned control” over Libya’s state apparatus and its security forces, presiding judge Sanji Mmasenono Monageng said in reading out the ruling.
She added that both Gaddafi and Saif al-Islam “conceived and orchestrated a plan to deter and quell by all means the civilian demonstrations” against the regime and that al-Senussi used his position of command to have attacks carried out.
Gaddafi’s government denies targeting civilians, saying it was forced to act against armed criminal gangs and al Qaeda militants.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said China had had contact with both sides in the Libyan conflict.
“We hope that the issue of Libya will be resolved through political peaceful means to reduce the humanitarian harm — in particular the harm to innocent civilians,” said Wen, speaking through a translator during a news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Anti-Gaddafi rebels, based in the Western Mountains region southwest of Tripoli, made their biggest breakthrough in weeks to reach the town of Bir al-Ghanam, where they are now fighting pro-Gaddafi forces for control, their spokesman said.
The advance took them about 30 km (18 miles) north from their previous position and closer to Tripoli, Gaddafi’s power base.
“We are on the southern and western outskirts of Bir al-Ghanam,” Juma Ibrahim, a rebel spokesman in the nearby town of Zintan, said by telephone.
“There were battles there most of yesterday. Some of our fighters were martyred and they (government forces) also suffered casualties and we captured equipment and vehicles. It’s quiet there today and the rebels are still in their positions.”
A Reuters reporter in the center of Tripoli heard at least two loud explosions Sunday. The location of the blasts was not clear. A plume of smoke could be seen rising from the direction of Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziyah compound.
Gaddafi’s administration had no immediate reaction to the ICC ruling. Speaking Sunday, government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said the court was guilty of double standards and followed a Western political agenda.
“The ICC has no legitimacy whatsoever,” Ibrahim told reporters.
“NATO has been committing crimes against humanity in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya now. They have never even considered investigating the killing of many civilians in Iraq, many civilians in Afghanistan, many civilians in Libya.”
In Benghazi, in eastern Libya, the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) said the arrest warrants made any attempt at negotiating with Gaddafi irrelevant.
“We are extremely happy that the whole world has united in prosecuting Gaddafi for the crimes he has committed,” NTC spokesman Jalal al-Galal told Reuters.
“It is premature to talk about any negotiation. After this warrant, it is all irrelevant. We cannot negotiate with war criminals. The world has confirmed what we have been saying all along. He’s a war criminal, and he should be tried for it.”
The rebels — backed by NATO air support — have been battling Gaddafi’s forces since late February, when thousands of people rose up against his rule, prompting a fierce crackdown by Gaddafi’s security forces.
The revolt has turned into the bloodiest of the Arab Spring revolts against autocratic rulers rippling across the Middle East.
For weeks now, rebels in their stronghold in the east and in enclaves in western Libya have been unable to make significant advances, while NATO air strikes have failed to dislodge Gaddafi, straining the Western alliance.
Analysts say that if insurgents outside Tripoli start gaining momentum, that could inspire anti-Gaddafi groups inside the capital to rise up, a development many believe could be the most effective way of toppling him.
In Libya’s neighbor, Tunisia, three Libyan ministers, including the foreign minister, were holding talks with “foreign parties,” the Tunisian state news agency reported, in a possible sign some in Gaddafi’s circle were seeking a settlement.
Tunisia’s state news agency TAP reported late Sunday that Libyan Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi was in talks on the island of Djerba, in southern Tunisia.”
It gave no details on the talks. Libya’s rebel leadership, in the eastern city of Benghazi, said last week it was in indirect contact with Gaddafi’s government, via foreign intermediaries, about a possible peace settlement.
Obeidi was joined at the Djerba talks by Health Minister Ahmed Hijazi and Social Affairs Minister Ibrahim Sherif, the Tunisian news agency reported.