Misrata, the third-largest city in Libya, remains a central focus of the tension between the rebel and pro-government forces. If rebels sustain hold of Misrata, they will retain control of the major port in Western Libya, as well as be able to block the coastal highway connecting Tripoli with Qaddafi’s home region of Surt. For the last two months, Misrata and neighboring areas have been besieged with violence, including shelling, rocket attacks, torture, rampant gunfire, which on Sunday killed a four-year-old girl, and attacks on the city hospital. The hospital remains in pro-government control, necessitating the development of makeshift clinics throughout the area to treat the growing number of injured and critically wounded. Meanwhile, thousands of migrant workers and a growing number of local families are desperate to leave, no longer able to withstand conditions. Forty people were killed waiting in breadlines next to the port last week and an additional 17 people died in Misrata on Sunday as a result of pro-government rocket attacks, according to doctors at the Hikma hospital. Despite some pledges from international allies to assist the evacuation, many are concerned that if Libyans leave Misrata, there will not be enough civilians left to support and protect the city from Qaddafi and his forces.
At the same time, the African Union has been in discussion with Qaddafi and rebel forces on a peace plan. Reportedly, Qaddafi endorsed the Union’s proposal, which includes a cease-fire, the establishment of safe corridors for delivering humanitarian aid, and a dialogue on reforming Libya’s political system. However, the head of the opposition council, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, supports anti-government protesters in insisting that the proposal include the departure of Qaddafi and his sons. Qaddafi’s relationship with the African Union is regarded with skepticism by many Libyans, who distrust the Union and the deal it is attempting to push through in an effort to end the two-month long stalemate. NATO and Italy’s Foreign Minister echo this skepticism, citing that Qaddafi’s forces have no track record of keeping their promises and must not be a part of the political landscape going forward. The people continue to express disappointment in the NATO campaign and intervention, reporting that while ally jets can be heard in the skies overhead, Qaddafi’s forces no longer seem fearful of them.
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In February, following 41 years of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s rule, popular unrest took hold in several Libyan cities and regime violence against the rebels spread. This promoted the largest international military intervention in the region since the Iraq war. The rebels demand that the long-ruling Qaddafi relinquish control. However, in a series of erratic speeches, Qaddafi has made clear that he would rather “die a martyr” than give up power. Since then, he has begun a war against Libyan civilians and armed rebels that has continued for nearly two months and has resulted in the death, injury and detention of thousands.
The most recent developments include several so far unsuccessful attempts at peace talks, most recently one brokered by the African Union that rebels rejected because it did not provide for Qaddafi’s departure. Another unsuccessful proposal consisted of two of Qaddafi’s sons offering to push their father aside in favor of a constitutional democracy enforced by their brother, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi. Educated at the London School of Economics and fluent in English, Seif was once thought to symbolize a new generation of rule, with possibilities for an end to the authoritarianism introduced by his father. When unrest began in February, however, Seif demonstrated ties to his father’s legacy, joining Col. Qaddafi in condemning the protests and promising rivers of bloodshed for those involved.
As government forces closed in on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, land and sea attacks against Qaddafi’s military by American and European forces resulted in the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya and critical damage to one of Qaddafi’s most important strongholds in his homeland of Surt. Despite these moments of progress, the rebels have come under increasing strain and have been forced to seize control of strategic oil towns they gained, protected by allied airstrikes.
February’s uprisings began in Benghazi, where a core group of antigovernment opponents came together, and spread to several other places including the capital of Tripoli. Thousands gathered on the “Day of Rage” (February 17) and were met with smoke, tear gas, gunfire, beatings and additional coercion and violence at the hands of security forces, private guards, and pro-government crowds. Libyans protested not only Qaddafi’s restrictive rule, which continued to censor state media and bias coverage of the protests, but also the unacceptable conditions with which they had long been living. Citing littered and dirty streets, damaged sidewalks, and an unemployment rate of over 30 percent, the unrest in Libya echoed an overwhelming resentment and dissatisfaction with a poor standard of living and dismal prospects for the future expressed throughout the region.
Qaddafi first addressed the opposition on February 22, from his residence, in a long and rambling speech that indicated he would not step down or even consider reforms. On February 25, security forces loyal to Qaddafi used gunfire to disperse thousands gathered after prayer in their first major challenge to a crackdown in Tripoli. International sanctions were immediately imposed on Qaddafi and his inner circle of advisors for the attacks and an investigation into their crimes was launched by members of the UN Security Council.
As the battle rages, more and more rebels continue to die. The most recent estimate, dated over a month ago, calculates over 1,000 civilians have been killed in clashes with pro-government forces and Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 370 people are missing from the eastern part of the country and suspected to be in government custody. Exact numbers of deaths and injuries are difficult to calculate, due to media censorship and restricted access by international journalists, which is sometimes limited to short and sporadic phone calls with a local contact. Violence waged over the last two months has exceeded that witnessed in other uprisings in the region and includes use of both anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines, which are banned in most countries.
There have been alternate reports of rebel defeat and victory. On March 31, Libya’s Foreign Minister, Moussa Koussa, defected to London, however, the forces continued to advance against the rebels. Meanwhile, the rebel troops have been criticized for having no clear plan or leader, and for continued disagreement amongst members of their makeshift army. International authorities that have become involved are immersed in debate over arming rebel forces, and how best to avoid a protracted civil war. International observers warn that rebels’ advancement can easily be turned around without a continued coalition of military support, yielding power to Qaddafi and his supporters once more.