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Libya — Protests and Revolt (2011)

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Libya — Protests and Revolt (2011)

Updated: March 22, 2011

Libya, an oil-rich nation in North Africa, has been under the firm, if sometimes erratic, control of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi since he seized power in 1969. But in February 2011, the unrest sweeping through much of the Arab world erupted in several Libyan cities. Though it began with a relatively organized core of antigovernment opponents in Benghazi, its spread to the capital of Tripoli was swift and spontaneous. Colonel Qaddafi lashed out with a level of violence unseen in either of the other uprisings, but an inchoate opposition cobbled together the semblance of a transitional government, fielded a makeshift rebel army and portrayed itself to the West and Libyans as an alternative to Colonel Qaddafi's four decades of freakish rule.

Momentum shifted quickly, however, and the rebels faced the possibilty of being outgunned and outnumbered in what increasingly looked like a mismatched civil war. As Colonel Qaddafi’s troops advanced to within 100 miles of Benghazi, the rebel stronghold in the west, the United Nations Security Council voted to authorize military action, a risky foreign intervention aimed at averting a bloody rout of the rebels by loyalist forces. On March 19, American and European forces began a broad campaign of strikes against Colonel Qaddafi and his government, unleashing warplanes and missiles in a military intervention on a scale not seen in the Arab world since the Iraq war.

LATEST DEVELOPMENTS:

March 22 The military campaign to destroy air defenses and establish a no-fly zone over Libya has nearly accomplished its initial objectives, and the United States is moving swiftly to hand command to allies in Europe, American officials said, but fighting continued as reports began to emerge of the crash of an American warplane. The crash, which was probably caused by mechanical failure, was the first known setback for the international coalition attacking Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces in three days of strikes authorized by the United Nations Security Council. Colonel Qaddafi's forces showed no sign of let up in their siege of rebel-cities. Timeline: Qaddafi

March 21 After a second night of American and European strikes by air and sea against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces, European nations rejected Libyan claims that civilians had been killed. Pro-Qaddafi forces were reported, meanwhile, to be holding out against the allied campaign to break their hold on the ground while enforcing a no-fly zone. Rebel fighters trying to retake the eastern town of Ajdabiya appeared to have fallen back to a position around 12 miles to the north on the road to Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital.

March 20 American and European militaries intensified their air and sea barrage against Colonel Qaddafi’s forces, as the mission moved beyond taking away his ability to use Libyan airspace, to obliterating his hold on the ground as well, allied officials said. Rebel forces, battered and routed by loyalist fighters just the day before, began to regroup in the east as allied warplanes destroyed dozens of government armored vehicles near the rebel capital, Benghazi, leaving a field of burned wreckage along the coastal road to the city.

March 19 The military campaign against Colonel Qaddafi was launched under British and French leadership as President Nicolas Sarkozy of France convened an urgent meeting of European, African and Arab leaders in Paris. American forces mounted an initial campaign to knock out Libya’s air defense systems, firing volley after volley of Tomahawk missiles from nearby ships against missile, radar and communications centers around Tripoli, and the western cities of Misurata and Surt.

March 18 Hours after the United Nations Security Council voted to authorize military action and the imposition of a no-flight zone, Libya performed what seemed a remarkable about-face after weeks of defiance, saying it would call an “immediate ceasefire and the stoppage of all military operations” against rebels seeking the ouster of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. But the United States, Britain and France pushed forward, declaring that the cease-fire announcement was not enough, at least for now, to ward off military action against his forces. President Obama ordered Colonel Qaddafi to implement the cease-fire immediately and stop all attacks on Libyan civilians or face military action from the United States and its allies in Europe and the Arab world.

March 17 The rebels seeking to oust Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi claimed minor victories in some of their last footholds at both ends of the country’s coast as they battled to hold off the Qaddafi forces’ superior firepower. After days of often acrimonious debate, played out against a desperate clock, the Security Council authorized member nations to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians, diplomatic code words calling for military action. Benghazi erupted in celebration at news of the resolution’s passage.

March 16 A day after routing a ragtag army in an eastern town near the rebel capital of Benghazi, forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi launched attacks on the city of Misurata, the last rebel stronghold in western Libya, about 125 miles east of the capital, Tripoli. Government forces fired artillery, bombarding the city of several hundred thousand as tanks moved in preparation for a ground advance.

March 15 In Ajdabiya, forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi routed an army of insurgents and would-be revolutionaries holding the last defensive line before the rebel capital of Benghazi. There were no signs of preparations for a vigorous defense in Benghazi itself. As diplomacy faltered over the question of outside intervention, France said there had been no agreement at a meeting of the Group of 8 powers on the contentious issue of enforcing a no-flight zone to ground the loyalist air force.

March 14 Following a brutal, weeklong battle that recaptured — and nearly demolished — the strategically important town of Zawiya, forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi cranked up military and psychological pressure against rebels on two fronts, offering an amnesty to those who surrendered their weapons while bombing Ajdabiya, a strategic linchpin in the east, and surrounding a rebel-held town in the west.

March 12 The Arab League asked the United Nations Security Council to impose a no-flight zone over Libya in hopes of halting Colonle Qaddafi’s attacks on his own people, providing the rebels a tincture of hope even as they were driven back from a long stretch of road and towns they had captured in the three-week war. The extraordinary move by the 22-nation bloc increases the pressure on the Obama administration, which has been reluctant to intervene in a war that could turn out to be prolonged and complex.

March 11 Forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi advanced on the strategic oil town of Ras Lanuf, a day after battering the rebels in a sustained assault by land, air and sea. The attack sent the rebels into a chaotic retreat, changing the momentum in the three-week old uprising and providing a stark illustration of the asymmetry of the conflict. The White House announced a five-point program of steps to isolate Colonel Qaddafi and ultimately drive him from power, all stopping well short of military action.

March 10 Rebel fighters fled the strategic refinery town of Ras Lanuf under ferocious rocket attacks and airstrikes by forces loyal to the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Bold plans of a westward drive to Tripoli by the undermanned and ill-equipped rebel army were dashed by the superior Qaddafi forces, which are seeking to retake several eastern oil cities that slipped from the government’s control in the first days of the uprising. Morale among the fighters seemed to be weakening, even as Agence-France Presse reported that the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, had recognized the opposition Libyan National Council.

March 9 As world powers debate measures against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, including the creation of a no-fly zone, the Libyan leader vowed that his countrymen would take up arms to resist such measures. Rebels were dealt military setbacks in Zawiyah and Ras Lanuf, part of a strengthening government counteroffensive, as the opposition’s calls for foreign aid amplified divisions over the need for intervention. Provisional leaders warned that a humanitarian crisis may loom, as people’s needs begin to overwhelm fledgling local governments.

March 8 Forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi renewed their onslaught on both the eastern and western fronts, apparently establishing control of the western city of Zawiyah and conducting airstrikes in Ras Lanuf, taunting rebels with flyovers and bombing runs near the coastal city’s oil refinery. The attacks came amid reports of a possible peace offer from the Qaddafi camp and growing debate in Western capitals about imposing a no-flight zone over Libya.

March 7 Government forces began a new air attack on rebels in the coastal town of Ras Lanuf. The rebels had withdrawn to the town after troops loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi attacked them in the coastal town of Bin Jawwad using tanks, helicopters and fighter planes, and pushed them east, stalling, for the moment, hopes by the antigovernment fighters of a steady march toward Tripoli.

March 6 Militia forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi launched a second day of attacks on the rebel-held city of Zawiyah, 30 miles west of the capital, and the rebels won control of the oil port of Raz Lanuf. The rebels appointed a three-member executive committee, including leaders in charge of the military and foreign affairs.

March 5 Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces fired on unarmed protestors in Tripoli and Zawiyah, and fought with rebels for control of Zawiyah and Ras Lanuf, an eastern oil town. At least 35 people were killed in Zawiyah.

March 4 Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s government widened its counterattack on its rebel opponents, waging fierce battles to wrest control of the town of Zawiya from rebel troops, attacking an eastern oil town and firing on peaceful protesters after Friday prayers in Tripoli, witnesses said. At least 35 people were reported dead, more than 100 wounded and 65 missing in Zawiya, 25 miles west of Tripoli.

BACKGROUND

Colonel Qaddafi took power in a bloodless coup in September 1969 and has ruled with an iron fist, seeking to spread Libya’s influence in Africa. He has built his rule on a cult of personality and a network of family and tribal alliances supported by largess from Libya’s oil revenues.

The United States withdrew its ambassador from Libya in 1972 after Colonel Qaddafi renounced agreements with the West and repeatedly inveighed against the United States in speeches and public statements.

After a mob sacked and burned the American Embassy in 1979, the United States cut off relations. But the relationship did not reach its nadir until 1986, when the Reagan administration accused Libya of ordering the bombing of a German discothèque that killed three people. In response, the United States bombed targets in Tripoli and Benghazi.

The most notorious of Libya's actions was the bombing in 1988 of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people. Libya later accepted responsibility, turned over suspects and paid families of victims more than $2 billion.

After a surprise decision to renounce terrorism in 2003, Colonel Qaddafi re-established diplomatic and economic ties throughout Europe. He had also changed with regard to Israel. The man who once called for pushing the ''Zionists'' into the sea advocated the forming of one nation where Jews and Palestinians would live together in peace.

Rather than trying to destabilize his Arab neighbors, he founded a pan-African confederation modeled along the lines of the European Union. On Feb. 2, 2009, Colonel Qaddafi was named chairman of the African Union. His election, however, caused some unease among some of the group's 53-member nations as well as among diplomats and analysts. The colonel, who has ruled Libya with an iron hand, was a stark change from the succession of recent leaders from democratic countries like Tanzania, Ghana and Nigeria.

The most significant changes had been the overtures Colonel Qaddafi has made toward the United States. He was among the first Arab leaders to denounce the Sept. 11 attacks, and he lent tacit approval to the American-led invasion of Afghanistan. To the astonishment of other Arab leaders, he reportedly shared his intelligence files on Al Qaeda with the United States to aid in the hunt for its international operatives. He had also cooperated with the United States and Europe on nuclear weapons, terrorism and immigration issues.

In August 2009, Colonel Qaddafi embarrassed the British government and drew criticism from President Obama with his triumphant reaction to the release from prison of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the only person convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Mr. Megrahi was given a hero's welcome when he arrived in Libya, and Colonel Qaddafi thanked British and Scottish officials for releasing Mr. Megrahi at a time that they were trying to distance themselves from the action.

Colonel Qaddafi, born in 1942, is the father of many sons who are now jockeying to succeed him. Experts say his eldest, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, is the current leader. Educated in Britain, well-dressed and fluent in English, he has been a bridge between the Libya power centers and the West.

Prior to the 2011 unrest, the only hint of potential change in Libya came from Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, a son and possible successor to Colonel Qaddafi, who spoke of dismantling a legacy of Socialism and authoritarianism introduced by his father 40 years ago. Seif Qaddafi proposed far-reaching ideas: tax-free investment zones, a tax haven for foreigners, the abolition of visa requirements and the development of luxury hotels.

Seif  Qaddafi liked to boast that his country could be “the Dubai of North Africa,” he said, citing Libya’s proximity to Europe (the flight from London to Tripoli is under three hours), its abundant energy reserves and 1,200 miles of mostly unspoiled Mediterranean coastline. Libya is wealthier than debt-ridden, oil-poor Dubai. Its $15,000 gross domestic product per person ranks it above Poland, Mexico and Chile, according to the World Bank. The government’s sovereign fund, a reserve of oil revenues, boasts $65 billion. And the government has announced plans to invest $130 billion over the next three years to improve infrastructure.

But the reality of daily life in Tripoli remained far removed from those lofty notions. The streets are strewn with garbage, there are gaping holes in the sidewalks, tourist-friendly hotels and restaurants are few and far between. And while a number of seaside hotels are being built, the city largely ignores its most spectacular asset, the Mediterranean.

Unemployment is estimated as high as 30 percent and much of the potential work force is insufficiently trained.

Uprising in Libya

In February 2011, protests broke out in several parts of Libya on a so-called Day of Rage to challenge Colonel Qaddafi's 41-year-old iron rule — the region’s longest. Thousands turned out in the restive city of Benghazi; in Tripoli; and at three other locations, according to Human Rights Watch. The state media, though, showed Libyans waving green flags and shouting in support of Colonel Qaddafi.

Trying to demonstrate that he was still in control, Colonel Qaddafi appeared on television on Feb. 22, 2011, speaking from his residence on the grounds of an army barracks in Tripoli that still showed scars from when the United States bombed it in 1986.

In the long, rambling address, he blamed the unrest on “foreign hands,” a small group of people distributing pills, brainwashing, and the naïve desire of young people to imitate the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Without acknowledging the gravity of the crisis in the streets of the capital, he described himself in sweeping, megalomaniacal terms. “Muammar Qaddafi is history, resistance, liberty, glory, revolution,” he declared.

International condemnation of the violent crackdown continued to build. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton protested the violence in a statement. Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, said on Feb. 21 that he had spoken to Colonel Qaddafi and urged him to halt attacks on protesters immediately. The Security Council held an emergency meeting the following day to discuss the bloodshed.

The Colonel's Security Forces

Colonel Qaddafi, who took power in a military coup, has always kept the Libyan military too weak and divided to rebel against him. About half of Libya's relatively small 50,000-member army is made up of poorly trained and unreliable conscripts, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Many of its battalions are organized along tribal lines, ensuring their loyalty to their own clan rather than to top military commanders — a pattern evident in the defection of portions of the army to help protesters take the eastern city of Benghazi. Some Libyans and scholars outside the country say this system of tribal alliances, long Colonel Qaddafi’s most potent weapon, is now emerging as perhaps a potential vulnerability.

His own clan dominates the air force and the upper level of army officers, and they are believed to have remained loyal to him, in part because his clan has the most to lose from his ouster.

Distrustful of his own generals, he built up an elaborate paramilitary force — accompanied by special segments of the regular army that report primarily to his family. It is designed to check the army and in part to subdue his own population. At the top of that structure is his roughly 3,000-member revolutionary guard corps, which mainly guards him personally.

But perhaps the most significant force that Colonel Qaddafi has deployed against the current insurrection is one believed to consist of about 2,500 ruthless mercenaries from countries like Chad, Sudan and Niger that he calls his Islamic Pan African Brigade.

The Ongoing Conflict

On Feb. 25, security forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi used gunfire to try to disperse thousands of protesters who streamed out of mosques after prayers to mount their first major challenge to the government’s crackdown in Tripoli. Rebel leaders said they were sending forces from nearby cities and other parts of the country to join the fight.

A bold play by Colonel Qaddafi to prove that he was firmly in control of Libya appeared to backfire as foreign journalists he invited to the capital discovered blocks of the city in open defiance. Witnesses described snipers and antiaircraft guns firing at unarmed civilians, and security forces were removing the dead and wounded from streets and hospitals, apparently in an effort to hide the mounting toll.

The ring of rebel control around Tripoli tightened, but in a sign that the fight was far from over, armed government forces massed around the city.

The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to impose sanctions on Colonel Qaddafi and his inner circle of advisers, and called for an international war crimes investigation into “widespread and systemic attacks” against Libyan citizens.

On March 2, rebels in the strategic oil city of Brega repelled an attack by hundreds of Colonel Qaddafi’s fighters. The daylong battle was the first major incursion by the colonel’s forces in the rebel-held east of the country since the Libyan uprising began.

Air power has proven to be Colonel Qaddafi’s biggest advantage, and rebels have been unable to use bases and planes they captured in the east. Planes and helicopters give the Qaddafi forces an additional advantage in moving ammunition and supplies, a crucial factor given the length of the Libyan coast between the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and Tripoli.

As Colonel Qaddafi’s forces tried to retake a series of strategic oil towns on the east coast of the country, which fell early in the rebellion to antigovernment rebels, the West continued to debate what actions to take, including the creation of a possible no-flight zone to ground Libyan warplanes.

Though the regime of Colonel Qaddafi has clearly been undermined, it still retains significant strength, and enough support among critical tribes and institutions, including parts of the army and the air force, to retain power, if not superiority, for some time to come.

The Opposition

The question of the opposition’s capabilities is likely to prove decisive to the fate of the rebellion, which appears outmatched by government forces and troubled by tribal divisions that the government, reverting to form, has sought to exploit.

Rebel forces are fired more by enthusiasm than experience. The political leadership has virtually begged the international community to recognize it, but it has yet to marshal opposition forces abroad or impose its authority in regions it nominally controls.

While the mood remains ebullient in parts of eastern Libya, largely because few believe that Colonel Qaddafi can reconquer a region that long seethed under his rule, it is more sullen in Benghazi, a Mediterranean port and Libya’s second largest city, where security has begun to deteriorate.

With momentum seeming to shift, the rebels face the prospect of being outgunned and outnumbered in what increasingly looks like a mismatched civil war.     

<The New York Times>,2011/03/22