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Libya rebels welcome air strikes, aim for Tripoli
BENGHAZI, Libya |
BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Libyan rebels, given a new lease of life by foreign air strikes, said on Monday they aimed to capture the capital Tripoli and force out Muammar Gaddafi.
They welcomed the international action but said they did not want foreign ground forces to intervene in the war.
A senior official on the rebel National Council, based in the eastern port city of Benghazi, also ruled out negotiations with Gaddafi to resolve the uprising against his 41-year authoritarian rule.
"Thankfully we are now the victorious ones," Abed al-Hafeez Ghoga told a news conference. "The strangulation of the Gaddafi regime means we will soon see the fruits of the revolution. The time is coming soon when the regime will end."
He said people in Tripoli and other western cities were ready to rise up against Gaddafi.
But it was far from clear how strong, well-equipped or coordinated the rebel army is. It is made up of regular troops who have defected and volunteer forces who appear to operate independently.
Ghoga and other rebel officials were speaking two days after an assault by Gaddafi's forces on Benghazi was repulsed when foreign warplanes hit his troops as fighting raged on the outskirts.
The strikes, spearheaded by France, Britain and the United States, have since targeted sites in Tripoli itself and elsewhere and turned the course of the uprising.
Ahmed El-Hasi, a spokesman for the February 17 opposition coalition, said the rebel aim was still to capture the capital Tripoli but that they wanted to achieve that without foreign offensive action.
"Our fighters are at the gates of Ajdabiyah and searching for his terrorists. Soon it will be safe. We are going all the way to Tripoli to remove the regime," he said.
Ajdabiyah, about 150 km (90 miles) south of Benghazi, was the last rebel-held town in the east to fall to Gaddafi's troops before the failed assault on Benghazi and subsequent retreat.
El-Hasi said the rebel leadership had coordinated with international powers on the air strikes.
"There is a connection between us. One, to pinpoint the position of Gaddafi's troops, and two, to pinpoint the position of our fighters so they don't get hit with bombardments."
However, a key question now is whether the international powers are willing to go beyond defensive actions to protect civilians -- the ostensible mandate -- or to support rebels as they advance.
"We are not asking the allies to pinpoint Gaddafi's troops to help us to advance. We are telling them to target them when they are trying to come into the city," El-Hasi said.
Speaking at a later news conference, Ghoga was more ambiguous. He said that if Gaddafi's troops and armoarmorur threatened a city, it was legitimate for foreign forces to act.
"The coalition forces will level the playing field with the air strikes then our revolutionary forces will advance," he said.
He also ruled out negotiations with Gaddafi to end the war.
"We are in a war of attrition this dictator has forced upon us," he said. "Because of this we refuse to negotiate with him. We will see the end of him rather than negotiate. He is wanted internationally as a war criminal. He will be judged for his genocidal actions against his own people."
Ghoga said the rebels had received light military and communications equipment from "friendly countries." He declined to say which, other than some were neighbors and others further away.
The rebels will send a delegation to meet Arab League officials, who after initially supporting foreign action have expressed concern about civilian casualties, to tell them that they approved of the strikes.
Benghazi remained tense on Monday despite the push back of Gaddafi's forces.
Funerals were held for the dead from Saturday's fighting. Shops, banks and schools were still shut and youths manned roadblocks on many street corners -- some just a row of plastic chairs or empty paint pots.
Fighters armed with AK-47's also lounged around the rebel headquarters and downtown streets.
A 40-minute firefight on Sunday night outside a downtown hotel heightened fears that Gaddafi loyalists were still operating in the city. Officials said they were taking steps to flush them out.
(Reporting by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Patrick Graham)
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