In a stark rebuke to one of its members, the Arab League urged the United Nations on Saturday to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to stop Moammar Kadafi’s warplanes from weeks of bloodshed and heavy bombardment of cities, neighborhoods and oil refineries in territory held by rebels.
The move came even as forces loyal to Kadafi advanced eastward toward the strategic city of Port Brega in an intensifying onslaught against outgunned rebels, who retreated from airstrikes and rocket barrages that thundered across deserts and coastal highways.
The Libyan army has made substantial gains recently, driving insurgents from the country’s largest petrochemical refinery near the eastern town of Uqaylah on Saturday and routing them earlier from Ras Lanuf, about 25 miles to the west, and from Zawiya at the opposite end of the country. The opposition has relinquished at least 60 miles of coastal territory in six days.
The losses were tactical and psychological setbacks for the rebels, who after a string of victories found that they lacked the firepower and training to counter strong government offensives in their fight to end Kadafi’s four decades of rule.
“We can defeat them, no problem, except for the airplanes. We have nothing to fight the airplanes,” said Osama Ali, 27, a bespectacled bank clerk armed with an assault rifle at a checkpoint on the coast road at Uqaylah, about 25 miles west of Port Brega.
The fighters on that desolate stretch have stacked ammunition and food in anticipation of a government assault. For the first time in the three-week conflict, they took the precaution of digging some of their antiaircraft batteries into protective dirt berms.
Kadafi’s forces have seized the momentum just seven days after rebels stormed Ras Lanuf and were poised to sweep west toward the capital of Tripoli.
The growing focus on Port Brega suggests that government soldiers are systematically edging from one rebel base to another as they advance along the North African coast closer to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
Opposition figures in the east said insurgents were not in danger of defeat. They conceded, however, that Kadafi’s soldiers and superior weapons have taken their toll on a poorly trained rebel outfit. But officials said Libyan army officers who defected from the government are increasingly in control of rebel strategy.
That did not appear to be the case on the ground. Kadafi’s government was so confident that Ras Lanuf was securely in its hands that it flew international journalists from Tripoli into the oil city. Under close escort by government minders and security officers, the journalists were given a tour of the state-owned oil company’s comfortable residential neighborhoods.
The rebel victory in Ras Lanuf one week ago was regarded by the opposition as key to advancing toward Tripoli. The quick shift in fortunes had officials in the east attempting to spin the retreat as a calculated move.
“It was a tactical withdrawal,” said Mustafa Gheriani, with the rebels’ national council in Benghazi. “He’s [Kadafi] almost flattened it. There’s nothing heroic about sitting in a town that’s getting bombed.”
Lightly armed rebel fighters retreated in pickup trucks and sedans about 10 to 20 miles east from the positions they had held as recently as Friday. They fled so quickly that they abandoned crates of ammunition along the highway.
A few peered through binoculars, trying to catch a glimpse of the unfolding refinery battle in the hazy distance beyond Uqaylah. Some claimed that bands of fighters riding in gun trucks had fanned out in the desert toward the refinery.
Plumes of smoke and the pounding of explosions nearby suggested that the front had moved well east of the refinery and closer to Uqaylah. A few fighters in gun trucks gathered anxiously in the shade of whitewashed buildings in town, bracing for an assault by advancing government troops.
At the sound of an approaching warplane, rebel fighters at the checkpoint 12 miles west of Uqaylah screamed “tayara!” (plane!) and “intishero!” (disperse!).
A few minutes later, government warplanes circled overhead. The fighters stood exposed in the desert, squinting into the low afternoon sun as they tried to glimpse the aircraft.
“We’re not afraid to fight,” said Hamid Ramadan, 28, dressed in jeans and a sports shirt. “We’re not afraid of the planes, really, but it’s just that....”
He raised an assault rifle. “This can shoot birds, not planes,” he said.
The no-fly zone decision by the 22-member Arab League, meeting in Cairo on Saturday, was a political defeat for Kadafi, who in recent years has exasperated leaders across North Africa and the Middle East.
President Obama has said such a step by the Arabs would be crucial ahead of any international military operation to ground Kadafi’s warplanes. A statement by the White House on Saturday said the league’s “welcome” action “strengthens the international pressure” against Kadafi.
In a further affront to the eccentric Libyan autocrat, the league decided to begin talks with the rebel council.
Fleishman reported from Benghazi, Libya, and Zucchino from Uqaylah, Libya. Times staff writers Garrett Therolf in Cairo and Peter Nicholas in Washington contributed to this report.