Qaddafi firms grip, prepares to retake Cyrenaica

Muammar Qaddafi succeeded Wednesday, Feb. 23, in clearing the streets of Tripoli and southern and western Libya of demonstrations against his rule – partly by threats and partly thanks to American and European Union failure to put up a military or diplomatic strategy for cutting him down. For now, he has firmed up his control of those parts of the country.

The US State Department was reportedly "looking at" possible sanctions against the Qaddafi regime, but there were no specifics, and EU officials also decided on sanctions in principle but omitted to set a date for their enforcement.

Once again, outbreaks of violence and military mutinies were widely reported but not independently corroborated, except for desertions on a small scale. Libyan officials invited a group of European diplomats serving in Tripoli on a tour of the sites alleged to have been bombed by Libyan war planes to see for themselves if it was true.

The picture described by travelers flying out of Tripoli's international airport Wednesday was one of tense calm in the cities they passed on their way out, as well as an unusual number of military and security checkpoints where soldiers screened them for weapons.

Passengers arriving in London, Valetta, Malta, and Paris from Tripoli reported the airport was operating normally. Many reported hearing a lot of gunfire in the streets during the week, but none had witnessed bomber planes or helicopter gunships firing heavy weapons at demonstrators.

debkafile's sources checking Tuesday's reports of a total blockage of Libyan oil exports found that that one quarter of the regular amount of 1.8 million barrels a day was withheld from France and Spain; the rest went out.

Qaddafi's threat to "hunt down the rats and hang them" in his televised speech Tuesday night is said by our sources to have had the effect of keeping protesters off the streets Wednesday. The heavy military presence in major cities was also effective. It demonstrated that claims of desertions by entire army units to join the protesters were exaggerated. During the day, the troops appeared to be obeying their officers' orders and carrying out the security duties assigned by the leadership headed by Qaddafi.

According to our sources in Washington, there was no practical follow-up to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry's call for sanctions against Libya to be considered, although he is often viewed as the Obama administration's informal voice. The White House just echoed the UN Security Council's condemnation.

High-ranking US officials confided off the record that, in view of the strong economic ties between Libya and at least three leading European countries – Italy, Germany and France – it would take years to formulate sanctions and get them off the ground, whereas the situation in Libya required instant remedies.

West Europe's heavy dependence on Libyan oil and gas would have to be taken into account as well as the fear that sanctions might further jack up fuel prices which had already risen steeply enough to hazard fragile economies.

Regarding military action, US officials rejected a proposal to impose a total no-fly zone over Libyan airspace as a means of preventing Libyan planes or helicopters from attacking the demonstrators.

One senior US official said anonymously that no European air force was capable of enforcing a no-fly zone. If Washington was determined to impose one, it would have to be left to one of the US aircraft carriers posted opposite the Libyan coast. "In the meantime," said the official," there are no such military plans."

debkafile's military sources report that the lull in the demonstrations and the stabilization of Qadafi's hold on the capital Tripoli have freed him to assemble military strength for retaking the three port cities of Cyrenaica – Benghazi, Al Bayda and Tobruk – captured this week by rebels. (Click here for earlier debkafile report on this revolt.)

The Libyan ruler has the edge over the insurgents in that his army is relatively well organized and he has an air force and navy, while the rebels are essentially civilians with no professional command center who are armed only with the weapons plundered from Libyan military stores in those cities.
Even before the disturbances, Qaddafi made certain never to maintain advanced weapons at military facilities in Cyrenaica.

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