BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - A general in eastern Libya who has mutinied against Muammar Gaddafi rule said his forces stood ready to help rebels fighting in Tripoli if called on to do so, but he rejected any need for foreign assistance.
The Libyan leader lost control on the east swiftly after the eruption of protests against his rule on February 15. Rebels in the eastern city of Benghazi have created a national council and have pledged to support those still fighting Gaddafi’s rule.
”Our brothers in Tripoli say: “We are fine so far, we do not need help’. If they ask for help we are ready to move,” said General Ahmed el-Gatrani, one of most senior figures in the army in Benghazi which no longer swears allegiance to Gaddafi.
Residents of Benghazi say that hundreds of people from the city have already headed to Tripoli to support the effort to seize control of the capital from Gaddafi. Gatrani indicated the army would only move if called on by rebel commanders there.
The extent to which rebel army units engage with hardline Gaddafi loyalists is a key factor in how long conflict may last.
”In Tripoli they (Gaddafi loyalists) still control one unit but it will be with the people soon,“ he told Reuters, without giving a source for his information. ”All orders he gives to the air force, they are refusing his instructions.
“He only has a couple of units in the areas he still controls and the rest are with us. Tripoli is being held hostage,” he said, adding that Sirte, Gaddafi’s home town which lies roughly between Benghazi and Tripoli, was also falling.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday the United States was “reaching out” to Libyan opposition groups seeking to oust Gaddafi. Although not responding directly to Clinton’s remarks, the general said: “We don’t need foreign help as we moved on our own, on orders from no one outside.”
The east has been largely calm since it shook off Gaddafi’s rule, despite some looting and a collapse of law and order in the initial aftermath. Libyans in the region have organised committees to help restore order and run basic services.
Gatrani said there was still the odd incident of violence in the east but these were not very significant. He blamed them on “mercenaries and foreigners fighting the people” in areas such al-Bayda, north of Benghazi.
He also said his forces would aim to protect key oil areas, such as el-Brega and Ras Lanuf where there are crude and product terminals, as fighting continued closer to Tripoli and in the capital itself. Libya relies on oil exports for its earnings.
“The areas of Ras Lanuf and Brega are safe areas for oil. Any fighting would be dangerous there. We aim to ensure that, when Tripoli falls, the situation is going to be fine in these areas,” he said. “We try to avoid any clashes in these areas.”
Writing by Edmund Blair in Cairo; editing by Alastair Macdonald