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Libyan rebels seek cease-fire after U.S. vows to withdraw jets

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Libya’s opposition called for a cease-fire after the U.S. said it’s withdrawing aircraft used to attack Muammar Qaddafi’s forces following adverse weather that prevented strikes allowing Libyan loyalists to push back rebels.

Libya’s rebels would accept a cease-fire if their demands for freedoms are met, said Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the rebel National Transitional Council, during a news conference televised today from their stronghold of Benghazi. Any agreement would have to involve Qaddafi’s fighters withdrawing from cities and their surrounding areas, he said.

The rebel move comes one day after Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. jets, won’t be flying with NATO forces over Libya after April 2. Mullen said planes would be made available only if requested by NATO. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told Congress the U.S. will “significantly ramp down our commitment” to Libya except for electronic warfare, aerial refueling and surveillance.

Rebels have been in retreat for three days as Qaddafi’s troops regain the initiative after almost two weeks of allied air strikes against them. This week’s recapture of the oil port Ras Lanuf by Qaddafi forces underscored the military weakness of his opponents. Intensive fighting continues around another oil port, Brega, which is under Libyan rebel control, Al Arabiya television reported.

“Seems to me, we are not doing everything necessary in order to achieve our policy goals and including relieving what is happening to the anti-Qaddafi forces,” Senator John McCain said at the hearing in Congress yesterday with Mullen and Gates. “I hope we don’t learn a bitter lesson from it.”

Can’t See Targets

Mullen said poor weather over the past three days in Libya meant pilots “can’t get on the targets; they can’t see the targets.”

Oil rose to a 30-month high in New York as economic data from China spurred hope of growing demand in the world’s biggest energy user and fighting in Libya fanned concern that output cuts may spread to Middle East producers. Crude for May delivery rose as much as 93 cents to $107.65 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the highest front- month price since Sept. 26, 2008. It was at $107.06 at 11:34 a.m. London time.

“It’s quiet today but there are snipers present and yesterday night a number of mortar rounds were fired and there was indiscriminate shelling from tanks as well,” Reda Almountasser, a resident in the western city of Misrata whose residents rose up against Qaddafi and have defied efforts by his forces to regain control, said in a telephone interview.

Rebel Leaders

U.S. political and military leaders said they’re unwilling to start providing arms and training for rebels fighting against Qaddafi. Mullen said there are “plenty of countries who have the ability, the arms, the skill set to be able to do this.” Gates said the U.S. doesn’t know enough about the insurgent groups beyond a “handful” of leaders.

“The rebels need more heavy weapons,” said Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Brussels and a former analyst at the NATO Defense College. “They need simple stuff — not high-tech weaponry that requires extensive training and would be dangerous if it fell into terrorist hands.”

The conflict in Libya, which began as a wave of anti- government protests similar to those in Egypt and Tunisia, escalated into armed conflict as the country’s army split and some soldiers joined the rebels. Oil prices have risen more than 25 percent since fighting began in mid-February.

’Desperation, Fear’

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said the defection of Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa on March 30 is evidence of “the desperation and the fear right at the heart of the crumbling and rotten Qaddafi regime.” He said the former minister hasn’t been offered immunity. The Scottish prosecutor’s office said it wanted to interview Koussa about the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie that killed 270 people.

While dozens of Libyan diplomats have quit since the uprising against Qaddafi began, Koussa is one of the most senior officials to flee. Libya’s former deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Ibrahim Dabbashi, said more diplomats and senior-ranking Libyans are likely to defect from the Qaddafi regime “within days,” Sky News reported, adding that up to 10 top Libyan officials may abandon the regime.

Another senior Libyan official, Mohammed Ismail, visited London in recent days for confidential talks, the Guardian reported today citing unidentified U.K. officials.

Gates said he saw several end-game scenarios involving Qaddafi.

’Family Kills Him’

“One is that a member of his own family kills him, or one of his inner circle kills him, or the military fractures, or the opposition, with the degradation of Qaddafi’s military capabilities rise up again,” Gates said.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization jets carried out more than 90 missions yesterday, Charles Bouchard, the Canadian air force general commanding the operation, said via videolink from Naples, Italy. A total of 20 of the 28 member states of the alliance are expected to contribute forces in the initial stages, NATO said. Germany has declined to take part.

Qaddafi said Western air strikes could lead to a war between Christians and Muslims that could spiral out of control, Sky News reported, citing a statement by the Libyan leader broadcast by state television.

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