Libyan rebels say airport seized, reject ceasefire

Libyan rebels said they took control of Misrata airport in heavy fighting with forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi on Wednesday and rejected a United Nations call for a ceasefire.

The rebels are fighting to end Gaddafi's 41 years in power, but the war has reached stalemate with Gaddafi controlling the capital and almost all of western Libya while rebels control Benghazi and other towns in the oil-producing east.

Misrata is the only major city the rebels hold in the west and for eight weeks Gaddafi's forces have besieged it, leading to fierce fighting in which hundreds have been killed.

"The airport, with the help from great God, has been freed. The rebels have seized many weapons including tanks and, thank God, they are still functioning," said rebel spokesman Mohamad Jaber by telephone from Misrata, a port city about 190 km east of Tripoli.

"Now what is left and what the rebels are working on is liberating the airbase, which is close to the airport," he said. There was no independent confirmation of his comments.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Wednesday for an "immediate, verifiable ceasefire" but rebels fighting in western Libya dismissed the idea.

"We don't trust Gaddafi ... This is not the time for a ceasefire because he never respects it," said a rebel spokesman called Abdulrahman, speaking by telephone from Zintan in the Western Mountains region.

"He bombards civilians immediately after his regime speaks of willingness to observe a ceasefire," the spokesman said, adding that Gaddafi's forces fired 20-25 Grad missiles at rebels on Wednesday, killing one and wounding three others.

Gaddafi's government has made several ceasefire declarations but continued attacks on Misrata and other rebel-held areas including the Western Mountains near the Tunisian border.

The three-month revolt against Gaddafi is linked to other uprisings this year against Arab governments. But divisions among rebel leaders are blunting their challenge to Gaddafi and could unnerve foreign powers banking on them as a credible alternative government, according to analysts.

"Gaddafi Must Go": EU

Ban spoke in Geneva after talks with Libyan Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi.

"He (Mahmoudi) even suggested the Libyan government was willing to have an immediate ceasefire with a monitoring team to be established by the United Nations and the African Union," Ban told a news conference.

"But first and foremost there should be an end to the fighting in Misrata and elsewhere. Then we will be able to provide humanitarian assistance and in parallel we can continue our political dialogue," Ban added.

The European Union said it planned to open an office in Benghazi to help the rebel council there with health, education and border security.

"Let us ... be clear, Gaddafi must go from power -- he must end his regime," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said.

The Libyan government may be forcibly expelling migrants in an attempt to flood Europe, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said on Wednesday.

Gaddafi has warned European leaders that if they undermine his government, Libya will no longer be able to hold back the tide of migrants trying to reach Europe.

The arrival of large numbers of migrants, in rickety boats that cross the Mediterranean from Libya, has already caused strains, especially in Italy.

The Libyan government says the rebels are armed criminals and al Qaeda militants and that the majority of Libyans support Gaddafi. It also says NATO's intervention aimed at protecting civilians is an act of colonial aggression by Western powers bent on stealing the country's oil.

Gaddafi has not appeared in public since April 30, when a NATO air strike on a house in the capital killed his youngest son and three of his grandchildren.

[Source: By Guy Desmond, Reuters, Tripoli, 11May11]

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