Libya: Red Cross pulls out of Benghazi fearing attack

Government soldiers celebrate victory in Ajdabiyah, Libya (16 March 2011)
Image caption The government says it now control the city of Ajdabiya, close to Benghazi

The International Committee of the Red Cross has withdrawn from the rebel-held city of Benghazi, in eastern Libya.

The organisation said it feared an attack by forces loyal to the country's leader Col Muammar Gaddafi may be imminent.

Government forces say they have captured Ajdabiya, the last town before Benghazi, but the rebels deny this.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has urged the UN to endorse plans for a no-fly-zone over Libya.

The ICRC said it had transferred its Benghazi and Ajdabiya staff to the eastern city of Tobruk, from where they will continue to work with conflict victims.

In a statement, the organisation said humanitarian activities in Benghazi would now be carried out by the Libyan Red Crescent, which had been left with food and essential items to cover the needs of 15,000 people for a month.

"We are extremely concerned about what will happen to civilians, the sick and wounded, detainees and others who are entitled to protection in times of conflict," said Simon Brooks, head of the ICRC mission in Libya.

"We will remain in dialogue with both parties with a view to returning to Benghazi and the western part of the country when the security situation permits."

'Real genocide'

Pro-Gaddafi troops have been moving closer and closer to Benghazi in recent days.

Reports say they have taken up positions outside Ajdabiya, only 160km (100 miles) from the rebel stronghold.

Tanks, artillery and warplanes have been bombarding Ajdabiya, but there are conflicting reports on whether it has fallen to the government troops.

The BBC's Jon Leyne in Benghazi says the situation there is getting more tense by the hour, and the calls for the international community to impose a no-fly zone more desperate.

Jalal al-Gallal of the rebels' Transitional National Council in the city said there would be a "massacre" if they did not intervene.

"He [Gaddafi] will kill civilians, he will kill dreams, he will destroy us," he told the BBC. "It will be on the international community's conscience."

Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya's ambassador to the UN who has defected from the Gaddafi regime, also warned the situation could escalate quickly.

"In the coming hours we will see a real genocide if the international community does not act quickly," he said on Wednesday.

On Wednesday evening, state TV warned residents of Benghazi that they had until midnight (2200 GMT) to abandon rebel locations and arms storage areas, Reuters reports.

Col Gaddafi told Lebanese TV that he did not expect there to be a battle in the city, saying the Libyan people had been helping to oust al-Qaeda elements.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionThe BBC's Ian Pannell set out from the opposition stronghold of Benghazi to try to reach Ajdabiya, where both sides claim to be winning

"All the places where they [rebels] are fortified, are now being sterilised with the help of the people... who say where their locations are," Reuters quoted him as telling LBC TV.

Col Gaddafi has long maintained that the militant group are behind the unrest in Libya.

Diplomatic debate

On Wednesday, Mr Sarkozy called on the 15-member UN Security Council to "fully shoulder their responsibilities and give support" to the draft resolution for a no-fly zone over Libya, to prevent regime troops attacking rebels from the air.

The Arab League has backed the idea but Tuesday's meeting of G8 foreign ministers in Paris failed to do so.

In a letter to member states, Mr Sarkozy said Col Gaddafi had continued his "murderous actions against his people" despite a resolution last month.

"Let's save the martyred Libyan people together. Time is now counted in days, or even hours. The worst would be for the Arab League's call and the Security Council's decisions to fail because of armed force."

The UK has also expressed its support for the resolution drafted by Lebanon, which authorises member states "to take all necessary measures to enforce compliance" by the Libyan authorities, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for a ceasefire.

Meanwhile, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, told the BBC in Cairo that the Libyan leader seemed "determined to turn the clock back" and kill as many civilians as possible.

Mrs Clinton said she was confident a decision would be made very soon by the international community to protect the Libyan people. She said authorisation through the UN Security Council was key, and insisted there should be Arab participation and leadership in any action.

"Many different actions are being considered," she added. "Yes, a no-fly zone, but others as well to enable the protection of Libyan citizens against their own leader, who seems determined to turn the clock back and kill as many of them as possible."

Asked about targeted strikes, she said all options were on the table.

Countries such as Russia, China and Germany are understood to harbour doubts about military intervention in Libya.

But one of Col Gaddafi's sons, Saif al-Islam, has claimed Benghazi will be recaptured soon even if a no-fly zone is imposed.

"Everything will be over in 48 hours," he told Euronews.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has said four of its journalists who were reporting from Ajdabiya have gone missing, saying it had received reports they had been "swept up by Libyan government forces".

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