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Interview: Libyan rebels plead for no-fly zone

Ryan Lucas

BAYDA, Libya – A rebel leader pleaded Saturday with the international community to approve a no-fly zone over Libya as Moammar Gadhafi’s forces gained strength in the east, securing a key port city and oil refinery.

Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the head of the opposition’s interim governing council, also expressed disappointment over the failure to act by the United States and other Western countries, which have expressed solidarity with the rebels in their fight to oust Gadhafi but stopped short of approving any military action.

“If there is no no-fly zone imposed on Gadhafi’s regime, and if his ships are not checked then we will have a catastrophe in Libya,” Abdul-Jalil told The Associated Press in an interview in a professors’ lounge at the Omar Mukhtar University in Bayda, where he is also head of the city council.

He was sitting at a desk, drinking tea from a small glass with the red, green and white pre-Gadhafi flag that has been adopted by the rebels behind him.

Abdul-Jalil’s comments came as the Arab League held an emergency meeting to discuss the possibility of imposing no-fly zone over Libya to protect the civilian population from the Gadhafi regime’s fighter jets. But the Arab League’s member states are divided over how to deal with the Libyan crisis, signaling it would be a tough debate.

The European Union, which has said any such decision would need sufficient diplomatic backing from the Arab League and other regional organizations, sent its foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, to Cairo for the meeting.

Another rebel commander, meanwhile, conceded defeat after pro-Gadhafi forces drove out pockets of fighters who had maintained a tenuous hold around oil facilities in Ras Lanouf, 380 miles southeast of the capital, Tripoli.

Gen. Abdel-Fattah Younis, who was the country’s interior minister before he defected to the rebel side, acknowledged Saturday that Gadhafi’s forces now control both the town and the oil refinery in Ras Lanouf.

The rebels had captured the city a week ago in a major victory as they pushed westward along the Mediterranean coastline toward Tripoli. Their retreat from the city reverses that advance and threatens other rebel positions in their eastern stronghold.

President Barack Obama said last week the United States and the world community are “slowly tightening the noose” on the Libyan leader and will keep up the pressure. He would not, however, commit to intervening at any cost, warning of potential perils in military action. The U.S. and other Western powers have instituted sanctions, frozen assets and provided humanitarian aid.

The Obama administration has said a no-fly zone may have limited impact, and there is far from international agreement on it.

It would require U.S. and possibly allies’ aircraft to first attack Libya’s anti-aircraft defenses, a move tantamount to starting war.

Gadhafi has warned the United States and other Western powers not to intervene, saying thousands in his country would die and “we will turn Libya into another Vietnam.”

Asked during Saturday’s interview whether the rebels were disappointed by the lack of action, Abdul-Jalil said: “Of course we’re disappointed because every day that passes, civilian people are either killed or injured and Gadhafi is bombing them with all kinds of weaponry.”

He said the rebels were urging the international community to impose a no-fly zone and restrictions on Gadhafi so he cannot bring more weapons or foreign mercenaries into the country by sea or by air.

Abdul-Jalil was Gadhafi’s justice minister but resigned to protest “excessive use of force” against unarmed demonstrators after protests erupted in mid-February. After defecting, Abdul-Jalil claimed that Gadhafi had personally ordered the Lockerbie bombing that killed 270 people in 1988.

He is head of the Benghazi-based transitional council that has been set up by the rebels to run day-to-day affairs in the eastern part of the country under their control. It’s the first attempt to create a leadership body that could eventually form an alternative to Gadhafi’s regime, although the rebels themselves are far from unified over who is in charge.

Abdul-Jalil also ruled out the possibility about a negotiated agreement with Gadhafi to resolve the crisis.

“No. All the people around the country want Gadhafi to leave and there is no way we can negotiate another option,” he said. “We let the international community face its responsibilities. The people don’t want him to rule them any more. They are between two choices, either to be killed or to fight to the end.”

Associated Press writer Paul Schemm in Ajdabiya contributed to this report.