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Libyan opposition gives up port town of Ras Lanuf amid air strikes

by Danny Kemp Danny Kemp – 1 hr 2 mins ago

RAS LANUF, Libya (AFP) – Libyan rebels ceded ground to Moamer Kadhafi’s advancing forces on Monday as the United States came under increasing pressure to arm the opposition and the UN appointed a humanitarian envoy.

World oil prices rose again, while NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen said attacks on civilians by Kadhafi’s troops could amount to crimes against humanity.

The rebels began pulling back from the key oil port of Ras Lanuf as fighter jets targeted defences on the edge of town, throwing up palls of smoke amid fears that government forces were preparing an attack.

There were casualties, including at least two children, in one air strike on a civilian car, witnesses said.

After the bloodiest fighting of the three-week-old conflict on Sunday, the United Nations demanded urgent access to scores of “injured and dying” in the western city of Misrata.

A doctor said 21 people, including a child, had been killed in shelling and clashes in Misrata on Sunday, and 91 people wounded.

“The overwhelming majority of them are civilians, including a boy aged two and a half,” he said of the casualties in Libya‘s third city which had been shelled by Kadhafi tanks.

“These widespread and systematic attacks against the civilian population may amount to crimes against humanity,” Rasmussen told a news conference at NATO headquarters.

He said the “outrageous” response of Kadhafi’s regime to protests had created “a human crisis on our doorstep which concerns us all,” and reiterated his strongest condemnation.

“I can’t imagine the international community and the UN standing idly by if Colonel Kadhafi and his regime continue to attack his own people systematically,” Rasmussen added.

US President Barack Obama said that senior officials who have remained loyal to Kadhafi would be “held accountable” for the regime’s bloody crackdown.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon named Jordan’s former foreign minister Abdul Ilah Khatib as his special envoy to deal with the regime on humanitarian issues.

Ban’s office said he noted that “civilians are bearing the brunt of the violence, and calls for an immediate halt to the government’s disproportionate use of force and indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets.”

The UN called for $160 million (114 million euros) to cover relief support including shelter, food and sanitation for refugees as well as others who remain trapped in the strife-torn north African country.

With the military situation worsening and population centres threatened, influential US politicians argued strongly for Washington to arm the rebels and secure a no-fly zone over Libya to thwart Kadhafi’s warplanes.

Britain and France have been preparing a draft resolution on a no-fly zone which could be put to the UN Security Council this week, a diplomat said.

The New York Times reported that US defence planners are preparing a range of land, sea and air military options in Libya in case Washington and its allies decide to intervene, including air-drops of weapons to rebels.

Kadhafi has not hesitated to use his air power against rebel positions, and reports that his jets bombed protesters in Benghazi in the early days of the revolt are among alleged atrocities being investigated by war crimes prosecutors from the International Criminal Court.

The odd crackle of gunfire sounded early Monday across the eerily deserted streets of Ras Lanuf after vehicles loaded with armed rebels were seen speeding out of the town.

The rebels had been forced to withdraw from Bin Jawad, 30 kilometres (19 miles) west along the coast from Ras Lanuf, where at least 12 people were killed and more than 50 wounded when pro-Kadhafi troops ambushed outgunned and inexperienced rebel forces, medics said.

Ras Lanuf‘s sole hospital was empty on Monday after the wounded were moved to Ajdabiya, further east in rebel territory.

The remaining rebel presence appeared very thin, with only about a dozen fighters manning the main checkpoint into the town.

World oil prices shot higher, striking two and a half year highs on the turmoil in the Middle East.

New York’s main contract, light sweet crude for delivery in April, hit $106.95 a barrel — the highest level since September 2008 — before dropping back to $105.67, still up $1.25 compared with Friday’s close.

In London, Brent North Sea crude for April rose 88 cents to $116.85.

Kadhafi, in an interview aired Monday by France24 television, repeated his accusation that Al-Qaeda was fomenting the revolt against his regime and railed against France.

When asked about Paris’s backing for the national council — the embryonic provisional government formed by rebels in the second city of Benghazi — Kadhafi said: “It makes one laugh, this interference in internal affairs.

“And what if we interfered in the affairs of Corsica or Sardinia?” he said, speaking in Arabic.

Britain was forced to admit its own, secret, attempt to begin negotiations with the rebels had ended ignominiously after opposition forces arrested a diplomat and a protection squad inserted clandestinely by helicopter.

In Benghazi, a rebel spokesman said the British team that landed nearby had not made prior arrangements, and was sent away.

An embarrassing mix-up in the international effort to evacuate tens of thousands of refugees saw a French ship leave empty from the Tunisian port of Zarzis after US planes appeared to have taken their human cargo.

The hi-tech helicopter carrier Mistral arrived after steaming from Toulon with 28 doctors aboard. It was supposed to take 900 Egyptians to Alexandria, but found most of them had already been airlifted to Cairo by US planes Sunday.

Elsewhere in the protest-wracked region, activists demonstrated outside the US embassy in Bahrain, calling for Washington to press the authorities for democratic reform.

Sultan Qaboos of Oman ordered a major cabinet reshuffle after weeks of anti-government protests in the strategic Gulf state, state television said.

Tunisia’s interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi announced a new government free of any members of the regime of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, toppled in an uprising in January.

The Tunisian interior ministry also announced it was abolishing the feared general directorate of public security and vowed to apply the law and respect “civic freedoms and rights.”

[Image via Agence-France Presse]

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