Libya rebels poised to launch offensive SYRIANS SQUEEZE HOMS

BIR AYAD, Libya, July 21, (Agencies): Libya’s rebels sought to consolidate their progress in the east on Thursday and ramped up for a pre-Ramadan offensive in the west as Muammar Gaddafi’s refusal to quit blocked a political solution. The insurgents said they have chased the bulk of Gaddafi’s eastern army from Brega, a key oil refinery town on the front line between the rebel-held east and the mainly government-held west. Loyalists holed up among oil installations in the town’s northwest have been encircled, and fighting eased on Thursday as the rebels said their week-old offensive had been slowed by hundreds of scattered land mines. “It has been more quiet today and yesterday, Gaddafi’s troops (inside the town) are not shooting back so much. We are not sure whether it is because they are running out of ammunition or it is something else,” said rebel spokesman Mohammed Zawi. But progress was being slowed by demining.

“We plan to advance slowly, clearing the land, creating good defensive positions,” he said, adding the rebels suffered no fatalities in a day for the first time since the offensive began. In the west, rebels in Bir Ayad in the plains below the Nafusa Mountains exchanged sporadic fire with Gaddafi troops in Bir al-Ghanam further north, despite a NATO request for the insurgents to suspend the next phase of their planned assault on Tripoli. The rebels fired a salvo of rockets at around 10:00 am (0800 GMT) that was answered by rocket and cannon fire from Gaddafi’s forces, an AFP correspondent reported.

Rebel commanders said they were refraining from using cannon fire to avoid civilian casualties as the loyalist troops were holed up in residential areas of Bir al-Ghanam. The insurgents say their immediate target is the strategic crossroads town of Al-Assabah, which would open up the road to the government garrison town of Gharyan, a key gateway to Tripoli. But NATO, which still aims to destroy Gaddafi military assets in the area, has not yet given them the green light, a rebel fighter in Bir Ayad told AFP.

In the desert hamlet of Gualish, the rebels are beginning to experience what fighting would be like during Ramadan as temperatures soar around 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit). During Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, the endurance of even the hardiest volunteers will be tested by desert battle without food and water during the daytime fast observed by the faithful. “We are preparing for the battle. We hope (it will take place), God willing, before Ramadan,” or just after, said rebel commander Mokhtar Lakhdar.

“If there is fighting during Ramadan, we will fight as usual. We will not stop until we have liberated Libya,” he said in Gualish, where the mercury hit 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) on Wednesday.
Around him young rebels debated fighting during the fasting month.
“During Ramadan, it will be harder but, God willing, we will not be weakened but rather be stronger. Ramadan is a good time to be a martyr,” said Shaban Aabor, 38.
NATO said that on Wednesday aircraft under its command had hit two rocket launchers and three armed vehicles around Misrata and 13 targets in and around Zliten the next town to the west on the road to the capital.
Rebel military leaders from Misrata on Wednesday asked French President Nicolas Sarkozy for extra arms to help them overrun Tripoli within “days,” a member of their delegation said.
On the diplomatic front, France has accepted that Gaddafi could stay in Libya if he quits politics under a ceasefire deal.

But asked about that during a visit to Spain on Thursday, senior Libyan rebel Mahmud Jibril said it is up to Libyans to decide if Gaddafi can remain in the North African country if he gives up power.
“I think the most important question for us is that Gaddafi leave power, this is the first step,” Jibril told a news conference with Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez.
“When we get that step secured first then we can move to the next phase, deciding where he can stay and what kind of arrangements are needed. Who is going to decide is the Libyan people themselves,” he added.
“If he is not ready to step down then we are talking about cosmetic reforms within the current regime. That is a waste of the blood that has been spilled over the past five months. We are not interested in that.”
Jibril is the diplomatic chief of the rebel National Transitional Council.
Libya has been wracked by a civil war since a violent uprising against Gaddafi, in power for more than four decades, swept the country five months ago.

Dozens of horsemen in flowing robes sat on their mounts cheering as men around them fired AK-47s in the air, proclaiming their allegiance to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and their readiness to march on the rebel-held western mountains.
The pomp and bravado on display during the rally in the sweltering town square in al-Aziziya south of the capital is part of a concerted effort by Gaddafi to mobilize one of the pillars of his regime — Libya’s tribes — to combat recent rebel advances.
“Look at the tribes of the Warshafana, who dares to challenge them? No one can; they will help free Libya from the hands of these rebels,” Gaddafi’s voice boomed out from speakers at the rally. “You are preparing today to march to the western mountains to cleanse it and liberate it from the traitors and mercenaries.”
It’s not the first time Gaddafi has tried to rally the tribes. Since the Libyan uprising began in mid-February, he has threatened to unleash angry tribesmen on opposition-held towns, although nothing ever materialized.
This time, the move appears aimed at countering the rebels’ recent diplomatic and battlefield momentum in the nearby mountains.
Last week, more than 30 nations including the United States gave the rebels a boost by recognizing their National Transitional Council as the country’s legitimate government, potentially freeing up billions of dollars in urgently needed cash.

Chinese President Hu Jintao told his South African counterpart, Jacob Zuma, on Thursday that China will work with the African Union in finding a solution to the Libyan crisis, state news agency Xinhua reported.
Turkey and the African Union have proposed separate road maps aimed at establishing a ceasefire and moving through stages from Muammar Gaddafi quitting power to a democratic transition.
China said last Thursday it would skip last week’s meeting in Turkey between Western powers, Arab governments and leaders of Libya’s opposition National Transitional Council, saying that the way the group worked needed “further study.”.

“South Africa and the African Union have played an important role in pushing a political solution for the Libyan issue, which shows the resolve of African countries to ‘use an African method to solve an African issue,’” Hu told Zuma.
“China greatly appreciates this, and is willing to continue remaining in close touch and coordinate closely with South Africa and the African Union on the Libya issue.”
Hu also told Zuma that China calls for an immediate ceasefire and a solution to the Libyan crisis “through dialogue and consultations,” Xinhua reported.
While China did not use its veto in March to block a UN Security Council resolution that authorised the NATO bombing campaign against Libya, it then quickly condemned the strikes and has repeatedly urged a ceasefire and compromise between the government and rebels.

Syrian security forces shot dead two people on Thursday as they pressed their clampdown on dissidents in the central city of Homs, the capital and elsewhere, activists said, calling for mass protests.
“There was heavy gunfire in the Al-Khalidiyeh, Baba Amr and Al-Nazhine quarters (of Homs), and two people were killed,” said Abdel Karim Rihawi, head of the Syrian League for Human Rights.
Rami Abdel Rahman, of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said “shots were heard in Homs from dawn. Most streets were deserted because of the military operations. Tanks were seen around the fortress and entrances to many neighbourhoods were closed.”
Saying security forces had “entered houses and made arrests,” he added that “the army has erected barricades in all the streets, communications have been cut in most neighbourhoods and the humanitarian situation is deplorable.”
Activists say pro-regime gunmen have killed at least 22 people in Homs since Monday, including seven mourners at a funeral.
Syria’s third-largest city, Homs has spearheaded demonstrations against Assad and his regime since protests erupted on March 15.

Fierce fighting rocked the city at the weekend, with activists reporting more than 30 people killed in clashes among Christians, Sunni Muslims and President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite community.
The army had already entered the city in May in a bid to stop rallies calling for the fall of the regime.
In Damascus, meanwhile, a wave of arrests was made in three quarters, with “searches by loyalist militants very violent,” the Observatory said.
And in the southern town of Sueida, security forces had surrounded the local offices of a union, where some 70 lawyers and militants were holed up, rights lawyer Cyrine Khoury told AFP in Nicosia.
Amid the continuing crackdown, activists called for more protests countrywide after the main weekly Muslim prayers on Friday, following a pattern that has become standard in many parts of the Arab world since popular uprisings toppled the veteran rulers of Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year.

Using the Facebook site Syrian Revolution 2011, one of the motors of the revolt against Assad’s autocratic rule, the activists said Friday’s protests would be in support of the residents of Homs.
It appealed for a mass turnout to honour “the grandsons of Khalid and for national unity.”
Khalid ibn al-Walid, a companion of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) known for his courage and military prowess, is buried in Homs.
Last Friday, more than one million people turned out across Syria — mainly in the cities of Hama and Deir Ezzor — to protest against Assad’s regime and to demand the release of hundreds of detainees seized at earlier pro-democracy rallies.
Human rights activists said at least 28 civilians were killed, including 16 in the capital Damascus and a child, when security forces opened fire to quell last week’s protests.
The activists say the government’s crackdown has left more than 1,400 civilians dead since mid-March. Thousands more have been jailed.

New ministers in a sweeping reshuffle of Egypt’s cabinet were sworn in before the military ruler on Thursday, as the prime minister sought to appease protesters over the pace of reform.
“The new ministers in the government of (Prime Minister) Essam Sharaf took their oaths ... in front of the commander of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi,” the official MENA news agency reported.
Roughly half of the ministers in the reshuffled cabinet are new.
The changed line-up was meant to take office on Monday but the ceremony was delayed amid wrangling that led to Sharaf’s brief hospitalisation with exhaustion.
Sharaf had hoped the new cabinet would mollify activists who have been camped out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square since July 8, but they have rejected the new line-up, which retains several ministers they want sacked.

“This government does not in any shape express our aspirations for the revolution,” said Tareq al-Khouli, a leader of the April 6 movement and organiser of the sit-in.
According to a list published on MENA, several controversial ministers kept their posts, including two appointed under ousted president Hosni Mubarak — Electricity Minister Hassan Yunis and International Cooperation Minister Fayza Abul Naga.
But Mubarak’s environment minister, Maged George, the only remaining Coptic Christian in the cabinet, was replaced by Maged Ilyas Ghattas, another Copt, according to MENA.
“We don’t understand why they are being so obstinate about keeping former Mubarak party members, rather than replacing them with respectable people,” Khouli said, adding the sit-in would continue.
Activists have called for a mass demonstration on Friday, dubbing it the “Decisive Friday,” while hardline Islamist groups say they are organising a counter-demonstration for “stability.”

The protesters wanted Sharaf to replace Justice Minister Abdel Aziz al-Gindi, whom they accuse of delaying trials of former regime officials, including Mubarak himself.
Mansur Essawy, the interior minister protesters wanted fired, also kept his post.
New ministers have indicated their government would listen to activists’ demands, with the new foreign minister, Mohammed Kamel Amr, telling Al-Jazeera television it was a “government of the revolution.”
The deputy premier for politics, Ali al-Silmi, told an Egyptian newspaper he wanted to end privatisation, a policy for which Mubarak was praised by foreign investors but criticised at home.
“Enough privatisation, especially after the end of the former regime which wanted to dissolve the public sector,” Al-Masry al-Youm quoted Silmi as saying.
The antiquities ministry was dissolved after Sharaf’s first choice, Islamic relics expert Abdel Fatah al-Banna, came under fire shortly after his appointment was announced on Monday.
Former state minister of antiquities Zahi Hawass, known for his trademark fedora hat and explosive temper, called the shuffle “a mess.” Hawass had been appointed to the newly created ministry in Mubarak’s final year in power.

“I don’t want to be involved in it,” Hawass, who was close to the Mubaraks, told AFP.
MENA reported that the Supreme Council of Antiquities, which oversees the country’s vast and lucrative collection of relics, would answer directly to the cabinet rather than a ministry.
MENA reported that Tantawi, who served as Mubarak’s defence minister for two decades, tasked the new cabinet with “quickly returning stability, calm and security and to confront any attempt to toy with the country’s security.
He also called on the cabinet to prepare for parliamentary elections, most likely in November, and presidential elections, and to “scientifically plan for achieving the demands of the revolution.”
Meanwhile, a Cairo appeals court overturned on Thursday a ruling removing ex-president Hosni Mubarak’s name from government buildings, leading to scuffles outside the court house, judicial sources said.
The Cairo Appeals Court for Urgent Matters said the lower court that had issued the ruling in April acted beyond its jurisdiction and sent the case to the administrative court.

More than 100 supporters of Mubarak, who was ousted in a nationwide revolt in February, clashed with opponents after the ruling.
Mubarak’s name was ubiquitous on public buildings before the revolt. His name has been stickered over at an eponymous underground railway station in Cairo, which is now called the Martyrs station.
Mubarak, 83, is expected to go on trial on Aug 3 with his two sons on murder and corruption charges.
Feminists dismayed that Egypt’s revolution is failing to advance their cause are trying to rally disparate women’s groups to defend women’s rights from perceived threats from resurgent Islamists and other conservatives.
“The revolution is stolen by the military, the government, professionally organised groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and traditional political parties headed by opportunists,” veteran feminist Nawal al-Saadawi told Reuters in an interview.

“Women need to unite.”
Campaigners say Egyptian women face some of the harshest treatment in the world: domestic violence, harassment and discrimination at work and in the law.
Female genital mutilation practised on children is rife. Its advocates assert, wrongly, that it is called for in Islam’s holy texts. Forced marriage of young girls is still common outside big cities.
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2010 Global Gender Gap Index, which evaluates progress towards women’s equality, Egypt ranks 125th out of 134 countries.
Feminists say there is no better time to unite because the main thing that split the women’s movement — its domination by Egypt’s former first lady, Suzanne Mubarak — was removed with the overthrow of her husband in February.
But with the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood targeting a big score in a parliamentary election later this year, Saadawi says women must move fast to secure their rights.

Germany is serving as an intermediary in a bid to convince Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to stand down amid a popular revolt against his three-decade rule, a newspaper report said Thursday.
Germany’s daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported in a front-page article that Berlin had sent an envoy to appeal to Saleh to accept a proposal by the Gulf Cooperation Council and head off further bloodshed in the country.
Saleh has been hospitalised in Saudi Arabia since a bomb attack on June 3.
The report said a diplomat at the German foreign ministry, Michael Klor-Berchtold, delivered on behalf of Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle the message to Saleh “that the GCC initiative is currently the only way to prevent a possible escalation of tensions to armed conflict.”
The stalled GCC initiative would see Saleh step aside 30 days after an agreement was signed in exchange for immunity from prosecution, and a presidential election to be held within 60 days.
A German foreign ministry spokesman confirmed that a “high-ranking diplomat” had conducted “political talks on behalf of” Westerwelle in Saudi Arabia and Yemen but declined to provide further details.
Meanwhile, three people were killed in clashes in two regions of Yemen between forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his opponents, who are growing increasingly frustrated they have failed to oust him.

In Taiz, opposition sources said Saleh loyalists opened fire on protesters, killing one, when they tried to leave a city square where they have camped out for nearly six months calling for an end to Saleh’s three-decade rule.
Saleh’s tenacity has frustrated protesters who thought his time was up when he flew to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment last month following an assassination attempt, leaving impoverished Yemen in political limbo.
As the stalemate goes on, clashes have broken out between the Republican Guard, which is commanded by Saleh’s son, and armed pro-opposition tribesmen who say they are defending the protesters.
Fighting between the Republican Guard and armed men on Thursday killed two people in Arhab, which has been the scene of shelling and gun battles during the past three days.
It was not known whether those killed had taken part in the fighting or if they had been hit in the crossfire.
Western powers and neighbouring oil giant Saudi Arabia, both targets of Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have tried to contain rising chaos by pressing Saleh to sign a Gulf-brokered plan to hand over power.
But he has backed out of the deal three times at the very last minute and has vowed to return to Yemen.

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