Libya’s foreign minister defected to Britain, dealing a blow to Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s government, even as his forces pushed rebels into a panicked retreat and seized valuable towns they ceded just days ago under Allied airstrikes. The government advance appeared to return control of eastern Libya’s most important oil regions to Colonel Qaddafi’s forces, giving the isolated government, at least for the day, the east’s most valuable economic prize. The rout also put into sharp relief the rebels’ absence of discipline and tactical sense, confronting the United States with a conundrum: how to persuade Colonel Qaddafi to step down while supporting a rebel force that has been unable to hold on to military gains.
But the defection of Moussa Koussa, the foreign minister, showed that at least one longtime confidant seemed to be calculating that Colonel Qaddafi could not last. The news of Mr. Koussa’s defection sent shockwaves through Tripoli after it was announced by the British government. Mr. Koussa had been a pillar of his government since the early days of the revolution, and previously led the fearsome intelligence unit. Although American officials suspected him of responsibility for the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, Mr. Koussa also played a major role in turning over nuclear equipment and designs to the United States ,and in negotiating Libya back into the good graces of Western governments. Presumably, he is now in a position to talk about the structure of Mr. Qaddafi’s remaining forces and loyalists. What is unclear is whether his defection will lead to others. “We think he could be the beginning of a stream of Libyans who think sticking with Qaddafi is a losing game,” one senior American official said. “But we don’t know.”
Having abandoned Bin Jawwad and the oil port of Ras Lanuf, the rebels fled helter-skelter before government shelling from another oil town, Brega, and stopped for the night at the strategic city of Ajdabiya. As the rebels retreated in disarray, a senior rebel officer, Colonel Ahmaed Omar Bani, pleaded for more weaponsm conceding that rebel fighters had “dissolved like snow in the sand” but framed the retreat as a “tactical withdrawal”. Vowing that “Ajdabiya will not fall,” he claimed that rebels were still fighting on the east and west sides of Brega, suggesting that pockets of resistance persisted even if the main force had fled. He acknowledged that the rebels had no answer to the artillery pushing them back unless foreign governments provided parity in arms. “The truth is the truth,” he said. “Even if it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”
The White House press secretary, Jay Carney, released a statement responding to a report of a presidential finding authorizing covert support for the rebels. It said: “No decision has been made about providing arms to the opposition or to any group in Libya. We’re not ruling it out or ruling it in.” Whether more weapons or longer-range weapons would make a difference is an open question, however. Leadership and an appreciation for tactics were noticeably missing in the rebels’ battle lines.
Faced with fire, the rebels seemed not to know how to use the relatively simple weapons they had in any coordinated fashion, and had almost no capacity to communicate with one another midfight. Throughout the spontaneous retreats, not a single two-way tactical radio was visible.
The rout put civilians to flight as well. By Wednesday evening, Ajdabiya’s hospital patients were evacuated and a long stream of vehicles packed with forlorn residents filled the road north to Benghazi, the rebel capital. Abdul Karim Baras, a young man with a crackling bullhorn, tried to buoy their spirits. “God will rescue Libya from this moment!” he shouted repeatedly as he stood on the highway median.
A few of the displaced, many of whom made the same trek a week ago, before the Allied airstrikes that reversed the loyalists’ first push, smiled, or gave desultory victory signs, as they passed through rebels’ disoriented ranks.
There were few signs of renewed airstrikes. But an American military spokesman said coalition warplanes resumed bombing pro-Qaddafi units, without specifying where. “The operation is continuing and will continue throughout the transition” to NATO command, Capt. Clint Gebke said.
There were 102 airstrikes over a 24-hour period ending at 12 a.m. Eastern time, according to the United States Africa Command. The airstrikes did little to reverse the momentum of the ground battle, which shifted decisively in the early afternoon. After a brief ground-to-ground rocket or artillery attack on the approaches to Brega, the rebels hastily abandoned their positions, fleeing pell-mell in perhaps two hundred cars and trucks, heading east with horns honking and lights flashing. They clogged both lanes of the narrow highway as they raced for Ajdabiya, recaptured from loyalist troops days ago. Some rebels said Colonel Qaddafi’s forces, pushing eastward from Ras Lanuf, were within ten miles of Brega. As artillery or rockets pursued the fleeing rebels several miles north of the city, the colonel’s forces seemed closer than that. The retreating column seemed rudderless, a sea of vehicles and fighters armed with infantry weapons and light rockets, but lacking the resolve, training, or leadership to stand up to even a modest display of force by Colonel Qaddafi’s conventional armed forces. They were an unmistakably intimidated lot.
After several minutes of wild driving, some of the rebels tried to regroup, pulling over on the shoulder of the highway between Brega and Ajdabiya beside an abandoned restaurant and a small mosque. A man standing on a pickup truck and brandishing an assault rifle led a crowd in chants of God is great! Morale appeared to stabilize. Then a single artillery shell or rocket exploded several hundred yards away, kicking up dust and black smoke. The crunch of the impact made the rebels flinch. The chanting ceased at once. The rebels scattered, dashing for their vehicles and speeding east anew, their panic both infectious and a display of an absence of command and control.
At one point in midafternoon, a government T-72 tank was seen afire half a mile or so off the road, beside another tank that appeared recently abandoned.
The rebels thought a coalition aircraft had stopped a flanking attack. But after the tank erupted in a tremendous flash, curious rebels approaching it determined it had succumbed not to violence but vandalism. Someone, a bearded rebel said, had simply set the tank on fire, causing its ammunition to explode. The nervous column pushed on, regrouping at last at the gate of Ajdabiya, where the rebels arrayed their mud-streaked trucks along the road. Some of them began to argue bitterly.
The reversal was almost complete. Last week, on the same highway, Allied airstrikes pounded loyalists, enabling the rebels to advance toward the Libyan leader’s hometown, Surt, a symbolic and strategically important objective on the way to Tripoli.
Military analysts said that even after days of airstrikes, loyalist forces had enough resources to defend Colonel Qaddafi’s urban strongholds, including Surt, where the dense civilian population could preclude air attacks.
As loyalists extend their lines east along the coast toward rebel redoubts, experts said, Colonel Qaddafi’s forces risk opening themselves to renewed allied strikes. But rebels also said that many loyalists now roamed the battlefield in pickups, making them indistinguishable from rebels when viewed by pilots overhead, a shift in tactics that could render air power less effective.
In Beijing, President Hu Jintao criticized France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, meeting there with finance officials, saying the Western air campaign he championed risked killing even more civilians than the attacks it was meant to stop.
Human Rights Watch, based in New York, said Colonel Qaddafi’s forces had laid antipersonnel and antitank mines. It said about sixty mines had been found in Ajdabiya after government forces held it. “Libya should immediately stop using antipersonnel mines, which most of the world banned years ago,” said Peter Bouckaert, the group’s emergencies director. “Qaddafi’s forces should ensure that mines of every type that already have been laid are cleared as soon as possible to avoid civilian casualties.” The authorities in Tripoli had no immediate comment.
The Central Intelligence Agency has inserted clandestine operatives into Libya to gather intelligence for military airstrikes and to contact and vet the beleaguered rebels battling Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces, according to American officials.Rico says he knows it's technically wrong to put 'the' in front of CIA, but it reads too weird without it, so there you jolly well are, aren't you? (And is it just Rico, or do these town names, such as Bin Jawwad, sound like they're from some Star Wars movie?) And didn't the German generals insist they were only doing a 'tactical withdrawal' from Moscow all the way back to Berlin?
While President Obama has insisted that no American military ground troops participate in the Libyan campaign, small groups of CIA operatives have been working in Libya for several weeks as part of a shadow force of Westerners that the Obama administration hopes can help bleed Colonel Qaddafi’s military, the officials said.
In addition to the CIA presence, composed of an unknown number of Americans who had worked at the spy agency’s station in Tripoli and others who arrived more recently, current and former British officials said that dozens of British special forces and MI6 intelligence officers are working inside Libya. The British operatives have been directing airstrikes from British jets and gathering intelligence about the whereabouts of Libyan government tank columns, artillery pieces, and missile installations, the officials said.
American officials hope that similar information gathered by American intelligence officers, including the location of Colonel Qaddafi’s munitions depots and the clusters of government troops inside towns, might help weaken Libya’s military enough to encourage defections within its ranks.
In addition, the American spies are meeting with the rebels to try to fill in gaps in understanding who their leaders are and the allegiances of the groups opposed to Colonel Qaddafi, said United States government officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the activities. American officials cautioned, though, that the Western operatives were not directing the actions of rebel forces. A CIA spokesman declined to comment.
The United States and its allies have been scrambling to gather detailed information on the location and abilities of Libyan infantry and armored forces that normally takes months of painstaking analysis. “We didn’t have great data,” General Carter F. Ham, who handed over control of the Libya mission to NATO, said in an email last week. “Libya hasn’t been a country we focused on a lot over past few years.”
Several weeks ago, President Obama signed a secret finding authorizing the CIA to provide arms and other support to Libyan rebels, American officials said Wednesday. But weapons have not yet been shipped into Libya, as Obama administration officials debate the effects of giving them to the rebel groups. The presidential finding was first reported by Reuters. In a statement, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, declined to comment “on intelligence matters,” but he said that no decision had yet been made to provide arms to the rebels.
Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who leads the House Intelligence Committee, said that he opposed arming the rebels: “We need to understand more about the opposition before I would support passing out guns and advanced weapons to them,” Mr. Rogers said.
Because the publicly stated goal of the Libyan campaign is not explicitly to overthrow Colonel Qaddafi’s government, the clandestine war now going on is significantly different from the Afghan campaign to drive the Taliban from power in 2001. Back then, American CIA and Special Forces troops worked alongside Afghan militias, armed them and called in airstrikes that paved the rebel advances on strategically important cities like Kabul and Kandahar.
In recent weeks, the American military has been monitoring Libyan troops with U-2 spy planes and a high-altitude Global Hawk drone, as well as a special aircraft, JSTARS, that tracks the movements of large groups of troops. Military officials said that the Air Force also has Predator drones, similar to those now operating in Afghanistan, in reserve.
Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint eavesdropping planes intercept communications from Libyan commanders and troops and relay that information to the Global Hawk, which zooms in on the location of armored forces and determines rough coordinates. Then the Global Hawk sends the coordinates to analysts at a ground station, who pass the information to command centers for targeting. The command center beams the coordinates to an E-3 Sentry AWACS command-and-control plane, which in turn directs warplanes to their targets.
Lieutenant General David A. Deptula, who recently retired as the Air Force’s top intelligence official, said that Libya’s flat desert terrain and clear weather have allowed warplanes with advanced sensors to hunt Libyan armored columns with relative ease, day or night, without the need for extensive direction from American troops on the ground.
But if government troops advance into or near cities in along the country’s eastern coast, which so far have been off-limits to coalition aircraft for fear of causing civilian casualties, General Deptula said that ground operatives would be particularly helpful in providing target coordinates or pointing them out to pilots with hand-held laser designators.
The CIA and British intelligence services were intensely focused on Libya eight years ago, before and during the successful effort to get Colonel Qaddafi to give up his nuclear weapons program. He agreed to do so in the fall of 2003, and allowed CIA and other American nuclear experts into the country to assess Libya’s equipment and bomb designs and to arrange for their transfer out of the country.
Once the weapons program was eliminated, a former American official said, intelligence agencies shifted their focus away from Libya. But, as Colonel Qaddafi began his recent crackdown on the rebel groups, American spy agencies have worked to rekindle ties to Libyan informants and to learn more about the country’s military leaders.
A former British government official who is briefed on current operations confirmed media reports that dozens of British special forces soldiers, from the elite Special Air Service and Special Boat Service units, are on the ground across Libya. The British soldiers have been particularly focused on finding the locations of Colonel Qaddafi’s Russian-made surface-to-air missiles.
A spokesman for Britain’s Ministry of Defense declined to comment, citing a policy not to discuss the operations of British special forces units.