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Gadhafi’s Forces, Rebels Clash Over Key City as Second Top Official Resigns

March 31, 2011 at 6:22 PM EST
Libyan rebels suffered a third straight day of setbacks as troops loyal to leader Moammar Gadhafi recaptured more territory along the coast. Geraint Vincent of Independent Television News reports from the front lines near the oil town of Brega, and Jeffrey Brown reports on the resignation of two top officials.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Rebels in Libya suffered setbacks for the third day in a row. And loyalists to Col. Moammar Gadhafi recaptured more territory along the coast.

Geraint Vincent of Independent Television News reports from the scene of the battle for the oil town of Brega.

GERAINT VINCENT: Just behind their front line, the rebels fire their missiles. Nothing boosts their morale quite like a rocket launcher.

At the actual front, it’s breakfast for the brave or the foolhardy. Ahead of them is a no-man’s land. The road outside Brega has become a firing range for the much more powerful government artillery. But these fighters are driving straight into it.

Within just a few minutes, Gadhafi’s big guns open up. Suddenly, the rebel trucks are screaming back across the desert, the drivers with their feet on the floor and the gunners firing futile shots at an enemy they can’t see.

In an army with no command structure, the fallback is followed by arguments about why the attack failed. And we see a demonstration of how ill discipline in these ranks could be fatal. On the road, the trucks are still racing back, and the rockets are now covering the retreat.

Well, the rebels are responding to the government’s artillery with their Katyusha rockets. And on the assumption that those rocket batteries will then be targeted by the pro-Gadhafi artillery, we’re moving back every time they’re fired.

There’s more panic, more chaos, and it’s time to move again.

MAN: Go, go, go.

GERAINT VINCENT: We have defeated soldiers who will live to fight another day, although in this part of the desert, it is far from clear how many days this revolution has left.

JEFFREY BROWN: Libya’s leader lost yet another member of his inner circle today. Former Foreign Minister and former President of the U.N. General Assembly Ali Abdussalam Treki announced his departure on several websites, saying it was his nation’s — quote — “right to live in freedom.”

For his part, Gadhafi issued a defiant statement, accusing Western leaders of fomenting war between Christians and Muslims. This all comes after the defection of the current foreign minister yesterday.

Just weeks ago, Moussa Koussa, Libya’s foreign minister, stood in front of the media as the representative of his nation’s government. But last night, Koussa, a longtime confidant of Moammar Gadhafi, flew secretly to London and became the highest-profile Libyan defector to date.

Koussa reportedly stepped down over the — quote — “spilling of blood by government forces.” But today, the Libyan government spokesman, Mussa Ibrahim, offered a different reason.

MUSSA IBRAHIM, Libyan government spokesman: The information we have is that he is tired, he is exhausted. He — he resigned. And that’s it. That’s it. When something happens, we will talk about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gadhafi’s former spy chief has been long suspected of being involved in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed more than 250 people. The regime’s opponents also blame him for numerous assassinations of Libyan dissidents in exile.

British officials said Koussa is now being debriefed. And they insisted he has not received immunity from any potential British or international charges.

Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, said Koussa’s defection has put increased pressure on the Libyan leader.

WILLIAM HAGUE, British foreign secretary: His resignation shows that Gadhafi’s regime, which has already seen significant defections to the opposition, is fragmented, under pressure and crumbling from within. Gadhafi must be asking himself, who will be the next to abandon him?

JEFFREY BROWN: That was the official response in Washington today as well, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates called Koussa’s defection an encouraging sign.

Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared before Congress to discuss the U.S. involvement in Libya.

One new development: reports quoting U.S. officials that CIA teams are now operating in rebel-held eastern Libya. Today, Gates declined to comment on any CIA activity, but did respond to questions about the president’s promise of no American military forces, so-called boots on the ground.

REP. COLLEEN HANABUSA, D-Hawaii: Are there any boots on the ground at this time in Libya?

SECRETARY OF DEFNESE ROBERT GATES: Not that I’m aware of.

REP. COLLEEN HANABUSA: So, we’re saying we’re not going to put any boots on the ground, but neither have our allies?

ROBERT GATES: That’s my understanding. And — and, to tell you the truth, the opposition has said they don’t want any.

REP. COLLEEN HANABUSA: So, is there any attempt, or do you know if there’s any time in the future that there are going to be boots on ground in Libya?

ROBERT GATES: Not as long as I’m in this job.

JEFFREY BROWN: Questions about the strength of Libyan rebel forces came up as well. And Secretary Gates acknowledged that the opposition appeared to have no coherent leadership.

He was asked whether terrorist groups were likely to use that situation to their advantage.

REP. TODD YOUNG, R-Ind.: If we’re not dealing with cohesive group here, and we’re dealing with various leaders, are you concerned that al-Qaida or Hezbollah or some other unsavory group might take advantage of a leadership vacuum that we are helping to facilitate through our military action?

ROBERT GATES: I think that, in Libya, that would be very unlikely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gates did suggest that the rebels could benefit from outside help, though not necessarily from the U.S.

ROBERT GATES: What the opposition needs as much as anything right now is some training, some command-and-control and some organization. It’s pretty much a pickup ball game at this point. And as I got a question yesterday in one of the briefings, the truth is in terms of providing that training, in terms of providing assistance to them, frankly, there are many countries that can do that. That’s not a unique capability for the United States. And as far as I’m concerned, somebody else should do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: For his part, Adm. Mullen said that coalition strikes have taken a toll on Gadhafi’s forces but not necessarily a fatal one.

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN, Joints Chiefs chairman: We have actually fairly seriously degraded his military capabilities, his air defense capabilities, his command-and-control capabilities.

We have attrited his overall forces at about the 20 percent to 25 percent level. That doesn’t mean that he’s about to break from a military standpoint, because that’s just not the case.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many at the hearing wanted to know how long the military action might last and when and whether the administration’s desire to remove Gadhafi from power could be achieved.

Again, Secretary Gates:

ROBERT GATES: But I think that one thing that may make a difference in terms of how long it takes for this regime to change is the fact that we continue to degrade his military capabilities. And I think that may contribute to some cracking of the unity of his own military.

But the bottom line is no one can predict for you how long it will take for that to happen. But I can tell you that the military mission in our now support role will remain limited, as I have described it.

JEFFREY BROWN: This morning, NATO took official control of that mission, now called Operation Unified Protector.