Libyan Rebels Advance On Brega; U.S. Role To Shift

Rebel fighters drives towards the university (background) of the key old port of Brega on their way to battle against loyalist troops on April 4, 2011.
Rebel fighters drives towards the university (background) of the key old port of Brega on their way to battle against loyalist troops on April 4, 2011. Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

Libyan rebels have pushed into the strategic oil town of Brega as a government envoy begins a trip to Europe to discuss an end to the fighting, and a NATO official told The Associated Press that a U.S. handoff will take place later Monday.

Brega has been the site of battles during weeks of back-and-forth battling along Libya's eastern coast. The rebels, backed by airstrikes, have been making incremental advances. On Monday, the town was under rebel control.

An envoy of Moammar Gadhafi told Greece's prime minister Sunday that the Libyan leader was seeking a way out of the crisis. Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi will travel next to Turkey and Malta in a sign that Gadhafi's regime may be softening its hard line in the face of the sustained attacks.

The U.S. military will pull its warplanes from front-line missions Monday and shift to a support role in the Libyan conflict, a NATO official said.

Britain, France and other NATO allies will now provide the fighter and attack jets to conduct intercept and ground attack missions as they enforce a no-fly zone over this North African country.

The hand-over is expected to take place later Monday, a NATO official said.

"There won't be a capabilities gap," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of regulations.

Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told Congress the U.S. would continue to provide assets that others don't have in sufficient numbers. These will likely include AWACS air surveillance planes, electronic reconnaissance aircraft and aerial refueling tankers.

American air power — including Air Force AC-130 gunships and A-10 Thunderbolts and Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers — will still be available to back up the allies in case of need.

U.S. aircraft currently account for 90 of the 206 planes deployed by NATO in the Libyan conflict.

Libyan Foreign Minister Travels To Greece

Western jets have been hitting the forces of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for more than two weeks. They initially targeted anti-aircraft missile defenses and quickly crushed a government offensive by destroying a large number of tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and other vehicles advancing into rebel-held areas.

But military experts say Gadhafi's forces have rapidly reorganized since then, shedding their heavy armor and relying on light forces to harry and repeatedly ambush the lightly armed rebels.

Still, a top envoy representing Gadhafi tells Greek officials that the Libyan leader wants an end to the conflict. The acting foreign minister, Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi, flew to Athens and met with Prime Minister George Papandreou.

Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas said after the meeting that Gadhafi's regime appeared to be in line with NATO in wanting a diplomatic solution. But the foreign ministry did not say what that solution would be.

Greece has not participated in airstrikes against Libya, though it has let NATO aircraft carriers dock off the island of Crete.

Greece has had strong ties with Libya since the 1980s, and Gadhafi has ties to the Greek government. He was a good friend of former Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, the late father of the current prime minister. George Papandreou also met with Gadhafi last summer about investing in Greece.

British Diplomatic Team In 'Secret' Talks

Britain, meanwhile, said it has sent a diplomatic team to meet with rebel leaders in Benghazi in what's being described as a fact-finding mission.

The delegation headed by Britain's ambassador to Rome is in Benghazi officially to gain further information about the transitional national council and about what's happening in Libya generally.

Asked about the nature of discussions, a council spokesman said "it's a secret."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Sunday the situation in Libya will not end in a stalemate.

Hague denied a report that 600 Royal Marines are heading to Libya, insisting that a large-scale British ground force will not be sent there; neither will his country arm the rebels, he said in comments that reflect the confusion among foreign governments about the rebel movement's nature.

"We have taken no decision to arm the rebels, the opposition, the pro-democracy people whatever one wants to call them," he told the BBC.

A top rebel leader said Sunday that rebels want to install a parliamentary democracy in place of Gadhafi, dismissing Western fears that their movement could be hijacked by Islamic extremists.

"Libyans as a whole, and I am one of them, want a civilian democracy, not dictatorship, not tribalism and not one based on violence or terrorism," Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, vice chairman of the National Provisional Council, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Questioning Whether To Help Arm Rebels

The Libyan rebel movement has faced questions about its character and goals from many Western nations even as they delivered the international airstrikes that have pounded Gadhafi's military forces. So far the airstrikes have not been enough to give rebel fighters the upper hand over Gadhafi's superior troops, and Western officials are debating whether arming the rebels should be the next step.

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said there may be strains of al-Qaida within the rebel ranks and that the NATO-led coalition in the campaign against Gadhafi should proceed with caution before arming them.

"In most Middle East countries, there are elements of al-Qaida," Republican Rep. Mike Rogers told NBC's Meet the Press. "Now, that doesn't mean they're a part of the government, it doesn't mean they're the majority, it doesn't mean that they are having major influences in the country of which they reside. But, yes, it's a concern. ... We just need to know a lot more before we give them advanced weaponry."

But Rogers also warned that if there were a stalemate in Libya, Gadhafi might resort to extreme measures against the opposition forces, such as the use of chemical weapons. Gadhafi remaining in power is not an option.

Fighting on Sunday was concentrated around Brega, as it has been repeatedly during weeks of back-and-forth battle along Libya's eastern coast. Arab news channels also reported heavy shelling in Misurata. Medical officials said Saturday that shelling and sniper fire by government forces had killed 37 civilians in two days while incinerating the city's main stocks of flour and sugar.

Also Sunday, an aid ship organized by the Turkish government evacuated 250 wounded Libyans from Misurata. The aid ship docked in Benghazi to pick up more injured.

Suleiman Fortia, who is with the rebels' transitional government in Misurata, said he hopes the medical ship paves the way for regular aid delivery to the besieged city.

"This shows the strong relations between Misurata and Benghazi, and this is a hope that this corridor will be kept safe between Misurata and outside for humanitarian needs," he said.

Joanna Kakissis in Athens and Larry Miller in London contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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