Middle East

Rebels Stand Ground in Benghazi in Face of Qaddafi's Threats as U.N. Backs No-Fly Zone

March 17, 2011: Rebels hold on to the back of a vehicle in the area of Benina, a civilian and military airport, outside Benghazi in eastern Libya

March 17, 2011: Rebels hold on to the back of a vehicle in the area of Benina, a civilian and military airport, outside Benghazi in eastern Libya  (AP)

Libyan rebels in their remaining stronghold of Benghazi dug in Thursday night for what expected to be an intense battle with Qaddafi forces, amid reports of explosions and anti-aircraft fire in the city.

A rebel radio station called on forces in the city to man their posts, the AFP reported.

Qaddafi vowed to launch a final assault on the opposition's capital Benghazi and crush the rebellion as his forces advanced toward the city and warplanes bombed its airport Thursday, but the rebels have not backed down despite steadily losing ground this week across the country.

“We stand on firm ground,” said Mustafa Abdel Jalil on Al Jazeera, according to a Reuters report. “We will not be intimidated by these lies and claims.”

In the face of Qaddafi's increasingly powerful offensive, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution to strike his forces on land, sea and air. The resolution authorizes a no-fly zone over Libya and “all necessary measures" to protect civilians. Some proponents, like the U.S., France and Britain, say the no-fly zone will help level the playing field between the rebels and Qaddafi loyalists.

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The Obama administration had been in contact with Arab and European allies to discuss how to enforce the no-fly zone.

On Friday, China said it had "serious reservations" about the Security Council's action.

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that China opposes using military force in international relations. The ministry said China has consistently stressed respect for Libya's sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity and that the crisis should be resolved through dialogue. 

Benghazi, a city of 700,000 residents, could prove problematic for Qaddafi.

“Benghazi is a hard city to conquer, and we're not afraid," Maj. Gen. Ahmad Gothrani, a senior commander in the rebel army, told the Wall Street Journal. "We're fighting for a cause, while Qaddafi is fighting to keep a rusty chair."

In an address Thursday evening, Qaddafi proclaimed that the "hour of decision has come" and that his regime would begin "tonight" to put an end to the rebellion.

"The matter has been decided ... we are coming," he said, calling in by telephone to state TV and addressing the people of Benghazi. "There is amnesty for those who throw away their weapons and sits in their house ... No matter what they did in the past, (it's) forgiven," he said.

But for those who resist, he said, "there will be no mercy or compassion."

Qaddafi says his forces would "rescue" the people of Benghazi from "traitors" and warned them not to stand alongside the opposition.

"This is your happy day, we will destroy your enemies," he said. "Prepare for this moment to get rid of the traitors. Tomorrow we will show the world, to see if the city is one of traitors or heroes ... Don't betray me, my beloved Benghazi."

The closest known position of Qaddafi's ground forces from Benghazi was still about 80 miles to the south, making it unclear if they would move on the city Thursday night as Qaddafi boasted. But during the day, several regime warplanes bombed the city's Benina Airport.

Several witnesses said rebels in Benghazi succeeded in shooting down at least two of the attacking aircraft. Mohammed Abdel-Rahman, a 42-year-old merchant who lives nearby, said he saw one of the warplanes shot down after striking Benina -- a civilian and military air facility about 12 miles from the center of the city. He said the strikes caused light damage.

Another witness, medical official Qassem al-Shibli, told The Associated Press that he saw three planes attack the airport and nearby rebel military camps before two were shot down. A third witness saw fire trucks fighting a blaze at the airport, and black smoke billowing from the area. Another witness reported that a rebel warplane crashed north of Benghazi, apparently after running out of fuel.

At the same time, the rebels were sending their own warplanes in an attempt to break the regime's assault on Ajdabiya, a city about 100 miles southwest of Benghazi that has been under a punishing siege by Qaddafi's forces the past two days. Three rebel warplanes and helicopters struck government troops massed at Ajdabiya's western gates, said Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman in Benghazi, and Abdel-Bari Zwei, an opposition activist in Ajdabiya.

But by Thursday afternoon, Qaddafi's army were holding the southern, eastern and western outskirts of Ajdabiya. Further outflanking the rebels, troops landing from sea swept into the nearby Mediterranean port town of Zwitina, 15 miles north, between Ajdabiya and Benghazi.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.