The oil town of Brega fell to advancing forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi yesterday as Western governments absorbed an unexpectedly strong call by the Arab League for a no-fly zone to help rebels prevent the regime overrunning the rest of Libya.
The latest reverse for an uprising which a week ago had seen the entire eastern half of the country in the hands of opposition forces will add fresh urgency to the calls for international help to halt the regime's counter-offensive before it is too late.
Such calls were heavily reinforced at the weekend when the 22-member Arab League, meeting in Cairo, said the Libyan government had lost its “sovereignty” and called on the UN Security Council to “shoulder its responsibility” by imposing a no-fly zone. The League's secretary general, Amr Moussa, said that it had decided that the regime's “serious crimes and great violations” had robbed it of its legitimacy.
As the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, prepared to fly to Europe and the Middle East — on a tour that will include the administration's highest level yet meeting with Libyan opposition leaders today — the Arab League decision will put further pressure on President Barack Obama to overcome deep reservations in Washington about the wisdom and effectiveness of a no-fly zone.
Meanwhile, a military official for the regime dismissed claims by rebel forces in Misrata, the most westerly town held by the opposition, that an advance on it by troops loyal to the Libyan leader had been stalled by a mutiny of troops who refused to shoot on residents of the town, about 130 miles west of Tripoli.
One rebel said that fighting between regime troops had broken out “just as we thought the end was coming”.
The military official, Milad Hussein, told reporters in Tripoli that Misrata was “like any other place” in that those who surrendered their weapons would be left unharmed. He added: “Some are handing in their weapons and some are under discussion.” Others, he said, would be “treated according to the situation”.
The reverse in Brega, after heavy tank shelling and air strikes, came three days after rebel forces abandoned Ras Lanuf, another strategic oil town 90 miles further to the west.
Over 370 miles east of Tripoli, Ras Lanuf bears clear signs of the precipitate flight eastwards of both fighters and residents in the face of earlier air, sea and land attacks by Gaddafi forces, when foreign journalists were brought there from the capital on Saturday evening.
With those still in the town virtually limited to regime forces — both army and militia — some waving green Libyan flags and touring the streets triumphantly in Toyota pick-ups, oil workers' houses in a compound close to the now empty hospital were all deserted, some with shoes left outside unfastened doors and uneaten food still inside.