Libya rebels retake airport, Gaddafi appears

AP , Thursday 12 May 2011

As Libyan fighters claim more air attacks, Gaddafi makes first appearance in weeks

Pressing to break a two-month siege, rebels in the port city of Misrata said Wednesday they had captured the local airport and pushed Muammar Gaddafi's forces ever farther from the city's western outskirts.

Seizing the airport in Misrata represented one of the most significant rebel victories in the Libyan conflict and a blow to the Gadhafi government. The airport and its approaches were the last remaining pieces of terrain in the city to be controlled by the Gadhafi soldiers.

Although potentially reversible, the airport capture appeared to be a break in the siege. With their advance, the rebels have, at least for the moment, the potential to cut off government forces in the east from those in the west of Libya, threatening the logistics lines of Gadhafi forces.

The advances were the latest in a recent flurry of accounts of rebel victories, coinciding with intensified NATO air strikes on Gadhafi's forces in several areas of Libya. In all, NATO said Wednesday, the alliance had carried out more than 2,400 air strikes since March 31.

Late Wednesday, Gadhafi made his first TV appearance since a NATO air strike on his residential compound killed one of his sons April 30.

Libyan TV showed him meeting tribal leaders but did not record him talking. To authenticate the scene, the camera zoomed in on a TV monitor in the room showing the date, May 11. It was apparently recorded at the hotel where foreign correspondents stay. He did not make himself available to them.

Because Gadhafi had not made an appearance, rumors had begun circulating that he had been hit in the April 30 air strike. The last time Gadhafi was seen in public was April 9.

According to a rebel who identified himself as Abdel Salam, rebels were in total control of the airport in Misrata's southern outskirts after two days of fighting. He said five rebels were killed and more than 100 injured.

He said rebels were also pushing west from Misrata, toward the nearby city of Zlitan, hoping to then advance farther toward Tripoli. "This is a major victory," Abdel Salam said. "The Gadhafi forces have been suffering lack of supplies. . . . Their morale was very low after being defeated several times and pushed back."

The rebels control most of eastern Libya, but Misrata - about 125 miles southeast of Tripoli - is the only rebel stronghold in the west. Local doctors say more than 1,000 of its residents have been killed in the fighting and shelling during the siege by Gadhafi's forces.

In Tripoli, a government spokesman denied the Misrata rebels' claims of success. "This is nonsense," said Moussa Ibrahim. "We control the airport and we also control the seaport."

Access to the port has been limited but not halted. The International Committee of the Red Cross has a chartered ship floating in the harbor that delivered medical supplies and baby food Tuesday and is now being used to support Red Cross work in the city.

Ibrahim did acknowledge that the war was creating severe shortages of many commodities in Tripoli. "The NATO air strikes and the sea embargo . . . are badly influencing the lives of daily Libyans," he said. "We have some shortages in fuel, food, and medicine."

In Benghazi, the rebels' headquarters city in eastern Libya, the opposition National Transitional Council received its highest-ranking foreign visitor Wednesday, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski. He said the people of Poland and the European Union "wish victory to the Libyan people in making this transition to democracy."

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