UQAYLA, Libya (AFP) – Libyan rebels, forced back by air strikes and shelling from loyalist forces, got Arab League backing in their quest for a no-fly zone to ground Mummer Gaddafi’s warplanes.
Forced to abandon efforts to recapture the oil town of Ras Lanuf, the outgunned anti-regime fighters struggled to set up a new defensive line 30 kilometres (about 20 miles) further east along a coastal road towards Brega.
An AFP reporter witnessed dozens of Libyan rebels pulling out of Brega on Sunday after heavy shelling from forces loyal to Gaddafi.
Rebel sources said government forces were advancing from the west after seizing the town of Uqayla and the village of Bisher 20 kilometres (12 miles) from Brega.
The retreating fighters were seen heading along the coast road towards Ajdabiya, gateway to the main rebel cities of Benghazi and Tobruk.
The news was better from the Arab League talks in Cairo however, as it came out in support of plans to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.
The 22-member organisation also decided to make contact with the rebels’ provisional national council, in moves welcomed by the United States and Britain.
Arab foreign ministers urged the UN Security Council “to assume its responsibilities in the face of the deteriorating situation in Libya and take the necessary measures to impose an air exclusion zone for Libyan warplanes.”
The decision was adopted by nine of the 11 foreign ministers attending the meeting, from which Gaddafi’s envoys were excluded. Algeria and Syria voted against.
The pan-Arab organisation also announced its recognition of the transitional national council set up by the rebels in their eastern stronghold of Benghazi and said they would open contact with the group.
The rebels’ 30-member council had urged the Arab League to recognise it and to back its call for a no-fly zone to curb attacks on its fighters, in a letter to the League’s chief, Amr Musa.
Musa had himself called for a no-fly zone as proposed by some Western countries and said he wanted the organisation to play a role in imposing it, in an interview published Saturday.
The African Union said Saturday it had asked the presidents of South Africa, Mauritania, Congo, Mali and Uganda to work together to help resolve the conflict in Libya.
A day earlier, the AU rejected military intervention in Libya, while condemning the “disproportionate use of force” there.
In Benghazi, thousands of women held a demonstration in support of a no-fly zone.
“We don’t want foreign intervention, all we want is an air exclusion zone and our boys will do the rest,” said Nada al-Turki, an economics student.
An Al-Jazeera cameraman, meanwhile, was killed in an ambush near Benghazi, the Arab satellite channel said, in the first reported death of a foreign journalist in the month-old conflict.
On Friday, EU leaders also agreed at an emergency summit to talk to Gaddafi’s opponents and protect Libyan civilians “by all necessary means” but stopped short of outright military action.
Calling on Gaddafi to “relinquish power immediately” they recognised the national council based in Benghazi as “a political interlocutor.”
But Britain and France had pushed in vain for EU support for a no-fly zone, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy even calling for “targeted action” against Gaddafi.
Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, said in Italian newspaper interviews published on Saturday that he was confident government troops would defeat the rebels, adding they had already retaken control over “90 percent of the country.”
He swore there would be no negotiations, branding the rebels terrorists and saying there would be a “war to the end.”
A UN envoy arrived in Tripoli on Saturday to discuss with Libyan officials access to the country for humanitarian relief efforts, the United Nations said.
Tripoli has so far made no mention of a mission by former Jordanian foreign minister Abdul Ilah Khatib, dispatched by UN chief Ban Ki-moon to raise international concerns about Gaddafi’s deadly crackdown on protests.
Khatib, due in Tripoli early next week, would put across to the regime “in no uncertain terms the concerns of the United Nations and the international community,” Ban told reporters in New York.
The envoy would have a political role in trying to end the conflict but also to try to open up humanitarian access to the Libyan population, Ban said.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton starts a tour of the region, taking in Egypt and Tunisia, to find ways to help the Libyan opposition in its battle against Gaddafi.
US President Barack Obama said on Friday the world was “tightening the noose” on Gaddafi, but acknowledged he was “concerned” the Libyan strongman could defeat the rebels.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Saturday they had the resources to impose a no-fly zone.
But he added: “The question is whether it’s a wise thing to do. That’s the discussion that’s going on at a political level.”
The European Union has also stressed the need for “a clear legal basis and support from the region,” reflecting divisions over the political fallout from a foreign military intervention.
An important component of that was the backing of the Arab League.
The EU called for an urgent summit with the Arab League and the African Union.