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Coalition Leaders Meet in London as Libyan Opposition Forces Retreat from Sirte

March 29, 2011 at 6:24 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: The rebel drive across Northern Libya turned into a panicked pullback today. Moammar Gadhafi’s forces laid down a barrage of heavy weapons fire on the approaches to Sirte, Gadhafi’s home town. The outgunned rebels were forced to flee the way they’d come.

We have a report from Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News at the front lines.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The rebels were gathering when the bad news started to come back down the road. Just after dawn, those approaching Sirte had been attacked by armed civilians loyal to Col. Gadhafi.

MOFTAH SHALWAI (through translator): At (INAUDIBLE) they started to shoot at us from houses and trees. It was an ambush. They were Gadhafi’s tribe and mercenaries from Africa. They had tanks, rockets and heavy guns.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Suddenly, artillery shells came overhead. The rebels and we were in range of Col. Gadhafi’s armor.

There’s just been incoming fire, and all these fighters are now streaming down the road, retreating, going back to the town of Bin Jawwad, which they hold. People I have been speaking to say that Col. Gadhafi has armed civilians up there. There’s been hand-to-hand combat. But we can also hear heavy weapons.

It was a chaotic scene, as everyone piled into their vehicles, hurtling down the road for three miles to Bin Jawwad, the small town they had taken so easily two days ago. Here, they thought they could relax.

There’s still a sense of unreality amongst these youthful would-be fighters.

MAN: I will attack whenever they — they will need me.

LINDSEY HILSUM: With your bare hands?

MAN: With my bare hands, yes. Maybe I will take some stones, maybe.

LINDSEY HILSUM: They started to fire Katyusha rockets towards Gadhafi’s lines. They don’t have artillery. This is the best they can do. And it’s not enough. Suddenly, we and they were fleeing again.

Without coalition airstrikes, the fighters are simply outgunned.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Away from the fighting, in Washington, there was divided reaction in Congress to President Obama’s Libya speech last night, this while international leaders convened in London, looking for a way to end Moammar Gadhafi’s days in power.

More than 40 top diplomats turned out for the London conference. The U.S., the U.N., NATO, the Arab League and others had one goal: help move Libya toward a post-Gadhafi government without taking direct action to remove him.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: We cannot and must not attempt to impose our will on the people of Libya, but we can and must stand with them as they determine their own destiny. And we have to speak with one voice in support of a transition that leads to that time. We agree with the Arab League that Gadhafi has lost the legitimacy to lead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Italian foreign minister offered a proposal that included a cease-fire and exile for Gadhafi. But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the meeting was not meant to choose Col. Gadhafi’s retirement home.

In the end, the diplomats agreed to establish a steering group on Libya and to consider further sanctions. They did not discuss arming the Libyan opposition forces. Representatives of the rebels attending the conference left open the question of arms from the outside. But they said they do not want foreign troops.

GUMA EL-GAMATY, Libyan interim national council: We are not seeking any outside power to bring about regime change in Libya. We are not asking for any non-Libyan to come and change the Gadhafi regime. That is the job and the responsibility of the Libyan people, and the Libyan people alone.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, at the U.N., U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice allowed for the possibility of giving guns to Gadhafi’s opponents, as one of several strategies.

SUSAN RICE, ambassador to the United Nations: Squeezing Gadhafi’s resources, and cutting off his money, his mercenaries, his arms, providing assistance to the rebels and the opposition, engaging in a political process, as Secretary Clinton is doing today in London, to chart with our Arab and European partners a post-Gadhafi Libya.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC anchor: So, that could include some military support?

SUSAN RICE: We have not made that decision, George, but we have – we’ve not certainly ruled that out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last night, in his address to the nation, President Obama reaffirmed the current mission does not include U.S. military action to get rid of Gadhafi.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Of course, there is no question that Libya and the world would be better off with Gadhafi out of power. I, along with many other world leaders, have embraced that goal and will actively pursue it through nonmilitary means. But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, this morning, at a Senate hearing, Republican John McCain said military action to remove Gadhafi should be considered.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz., Now that we have prevented the worst outcome, we have an opportunity to achieve the broader U.S. goal in Libya, as the president stated, forcing Gadhafi to leave power. I disagree with the president saying that the use of force should be ruled out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even so, the Democratic chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, supported the president’s position.

SEN. CARL LEVIN, D-Mich., Armed Services Committee chairman: Those who favor including in the military mission the toppling of Gadhafi need to address the problems created by getting deeper into the land of an Arab country, putting ourselves in the middle of a civil war, almost certainly destroying the coalition, and ignoring the U.N. mandate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Pentagon officials said today the 11 days of U.S. airstrikes on Libya have cost $550 million so far. NATO is expected to take control of the operation tomorrow.