Libya declared an immediate cease-fire and promised to stop military operations Friday in a bid to fend off international military intervention after the U.N. authorized a no-fly zone and “all necessary measures” to prevent the regime from striking its own people.
The announcement by Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa followed a fierce attack by Gadhafi’s forces against Misrata, the last rebel-held city in the western half of the country. A doctor said at least six people were killed.
The U.N. Security Council resolution, which was passed late Thursday after weeks of deliberation, set the stage for airstrikes, a no-fly zone and other military measures short of a ground invasion. Britain announced that it would send fighter jets and France was making plans to deploy planes, but the U.S. had yet to announce what its role would be. NATO also held an emergency meeting.
With the international community mobilizing, Koussa said the government would cease fire in line with the resolution, although he criticized the authorization of international military action, calling it a violation of Libya’s sovereignty.
“The government is opening channels for true, serious dialogue with all parties,” he said during a news conference in Tripoli, the capital.
The attack on Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, came as the rebels were on the defensive in their eastern stronghold after Gadhafi vowed to launch a final assault and crush the nearly 5-week-old rebellion against him.
The opposition expressed hope the U.N. resolution would help turn the tide in their favor after days of fierce fighting.
“We think Gadhafi’s forces will not advance against us. Our morale is very high now. I think we have the upper hand,” Col. Salah Osman, a former army officer who defected to the rebel side, said. He was speaking at a checkpoint near the eastern town of Sultan.
The Western powers faced pressure to act urgently after weeks spent deliberation over what to do about Gadhafi as his regime gained momentum. The U.S. has positioned a host of forces and ships in the region, including submarines and destroyers and amphibious assault and landing ships with some 400 Marines aboard. It also could provide a range of surveillance assets.
In an interview with Portuguese television broadcast just before the U.N. vote, Gadhafi pledged to respond harshly to U.N.-sponsored attacks. “If the world is crazy,” he said, “we will be crazy, too.”
The Libyan government closed its airspace to all traffic Friday, according to Europe’s air traffic control agency, Eurocontrol.
Government tanks rolled into Misrata, 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, early Friday, shelling houses, hospitals and a mosque for several hours before pulling back to the city’s outskirts, witnesses said. At least six people were killed, raising the total death toll in two days of fighting to nine, a local doctor said.
Misrata is the last rebel holdout in the western half of the country after Gadhafi recaptured a string of other cities that had fallen to the opposition early in the uprising that began Feb. 15. Its fall would leave the country largely divided, with the rebels bottled up in the east near the border with Egypt.
The city has been under a punishing blockade that has prevented aid ships from delivering medicine and other supplies, the doctor said.
“They haven’t stopped shelling us for a week — we sleep to shelling, and wake up to shelling. They are targeting houses and hospitals,” he said, adding the hospital had been overwhelmed.
“We have had to perform surgeries in the hallways using the light from our cell phones to see what we’re doing. We are also using some clinics around the town, some only have 60 beds, which isn’t enough,” he said.
Another doctor claimed Gadhafi’s forces had surrounded some neighborhoods and were shooting at people who ventured out of their homes. “Militias used two ambulances to jump out of and shoot at innocent people indiscriminately,” he said.
The situation appeared to be calm in Benghazi.
Col. Osman said Gadhafi’s forces had surrounded the nearby city of Ajdabiya, but rebels remained inside.
The shift toward international action reflected dramatic change on the ground in Libya in the past week. The rebels, once confident, found themselves in danger of being crushed by an overpowering pro-Gadhafi force using rockets, artillery, tanks, warplanes. That force has advanced along the Mediterranean coast aiming to recapture the rebel-held eastern half of Libya.
Gadhafi troops encircled the city of Ajdabiya, the first in the path of their march, but also had some troops positioned beyond it toward Benghazi, the second largest Libyan city, with a population of about 700,000.
A large crowd in Benghazi was watching the vote on an outdoor TV projection and burst into cheers, with green and red fireworks exploding overhead. In Tobruk, east of Benghazi, happy Libyans fired weapons in the air to celebrate the vote.
Libya’s unrest began in Benghazi and spread east to Tripoli. Like others in the Mideast, the uprising started with popular demonstrations against Gadhafi, rejecting his 41 years of despotic and often brutal rule. The tone quickly changed after Gadhafi’s security in Tripoli forcefully put down the gatherings there.
Soon rebel forces began arming themselves, quickly taking control of the country’s east centered on Benghazi. Some Libyan army units joined the rebels, providing them with some firepower, but much less than Gadhafi’s remaining forces.
There are no reliable death tolls. Rebels say more than 1,000 people have been killed in a month of fighting, while Gadhafi claims the toll is only 150.
Lucas reported from Benghazi, Libya. Associated Press writers Slobodan Lekic in Brussels and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.
Source: The Associated Press.