TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya urged rebels on Thursday to sit down to peace talks but said it was arming and training civilians to confront any possible ground attack by NATO forces.
“Many cities have organized themselves into squads to fight any possible NATO invasion,” government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said, adding that authorities were handing out rifles and guns.
“If NATO comes to Misrata or any Libyan city we will unleash hell upon NATO. We will be a ball of fire .... We will make it 10 times as bad as Iraq.”
The comments came a day after France promised Libyan rebels it would intensify air strikes on Muammar Gaddafi’s forces and send military liaison officers to help them.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has spearheaded the U.N.-backed NATO intervention, did not say how NATO-led forces would break the deadlock on the ground after the United States and several European allies declined to join ground strikes.
The expansion of the intervention beyond initially enforcing a no-fly zone and limited airstrikes has raised some fears of a slow creep into a protracted and costly conflict.
“We are arming the whole population, not to fight the rebels,” Ibrahim said. “What we are fighting is NATO and if NATO thinks of coming on land to occupy any city in Libya they will not be confronted by the Libyan army but they will be confronted by the Libyan tribes, young Libyan men and women.”
In Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city and the only one still held by rebels in the West of the country, Gaddafi loyalists and rebels were fighting a ferocious battle.
Ibrahim said government forces were in control of 80 percent of Misrata — besieged by pro-Gaddafi troops for seven weeks.
Rebels were in control only of the port and the nearby Kirzas area, Ibrahim said, adding that the government had evacuated tens of thousands of people from the city and was working with the Red Cross to ensure humanitarian aid.
“We welcome international help but we do not accept any international humanitarian aid to come with military cover. This is a direct occupation of Libya and we will fight against it, the nation and not just the army,” he said.
“The tribes in Misrata and outside Misrata have all declared that they are with the legitimate government of this country.”
Ibrahim called on the international community to press the rebels to reconsider an African Union peace plan they rejected this month or come up with other initiatives rather than force.
“We are saying to everyone in the eastern part of the country and to everyone outside Libya, we need to sit down and talk and get Libya out of this crisis,” he said.
Libya’s government accepted an African Union peace plan earlier this month that called for a ceasefire, humanitarian aid, dialogue and a transitional period, but the rebels rejected the plan as it does not guarantee Gaddafi’s exit.
“We are challenging Britain and France especially. We are challenging the rebels to come to a political process without preconditions. The only precondition should be that no political solution is imposed from without Libya,” Ibrahim said.
“Our ministers and officials are traveling to Africa to activate this road map but we are also ready for war. If NATO comes it will be hell.”
Reporting by Lin Noueihed in Tripoli; editing by Andrew Roche