Libyan rebels set up rival Government

Libya has taken its first steps towards a new future after four decades of dictatorship with the formation of a new administration in the half of the country which is out of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's control.

The National Council set up in Benghazi, the "capital of Free Libya", will present itself for recognition by the international community as emissaries of the people who will be representing the country from now on.

Former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil announced that he would head an interim Government with the suggestion it has the backing of the United States. He also said an agreement could be reached with the sons of Gaddafi to end the spiralling violence.

But confusion and controversy surrounded the announcement after the official spokesman for the council said Abdel-Jalil had expressed purely personal views.

Abdul Hafiz Gouga said there could be no accommodation with remnants of the regime because of "the huge human rights abuses".

He insisted Abdel-Jalil would only be a member of the council rather than its head. In fact, said Gouga, the organisation would have no hierarchy with the members, their numbers still undisclosed, all having an equal say on policy.

While the supposed new rulers grappled with the problems of politics, the conflict on the ground continued, with rebels claiming they had taken control of Zawiyah, close to Tripoli and straddling one of the main routes into the capital.

A crowd of about 500 gathered, chanting, "The people want the fall of the regime," and "This is our revolution". Posters of Gaddafi had been torn down and the red, green and black flag of the monarchy, which has become a symbol of the uprising, flew over the central square.

An attempt by forces loyal to the regime to recapture Zawiyah appeared to have failed. Video footage of blast damage to buildings, including the main mosque, showed the intense fighting.

Standing beside half a dozen freshly dug graves of protesters, Mohammed Regdeh, one of those who organised the resistance, said: "We knew we had to fight hard to protect our gains. If Gaddafi had taken back Zawiyah then it would have encouraged him to think he could survive.

"But the truth that he cannot even control this town so near Tripoli is a great signal to him that he cannot win ... We need to move forward from here and liberate our capital."

According to reports from Tripoli, many outlying areas have been abandoned by the security forces, with activists setting up barricades and arming themselves with home-made weaponry.

Ibrahim Elkishi, a businessman who arrived in Benghazi after driving from Tripoli yesterday, said: "The shootings had become much less in the last day. The soldiers who still support Gaddafi and his militias are gathering but they have not launched any attacks in the last day or so. But everyone is very nervous, they do not know whether Gaddafi will just go or carry out more bloodshed before he goes."

A commander in the Libyan Army who has defected said yesterday in Tripoli that although the Gaddafi forces had scaled down their operations, it was likely to be temporary and the rebels in the area needed reinforcements, which were being sent from Benghazi.

Colonel Awad Suleiman, of the armoured corps, said: "Gaddafi's best troops are there and they have been very ruthless in dealing with the protests. We know that the people are dying and we, the professional soldiers, now must step in to help them. If we don't then there will be many more massacres."

One of those heading to the frontline was Sergeant Abu Mussa, who had served for 18 years.

"We have to move quite fast so we cannot take many heavy weapons," he said. "But we believe that if enough of us go then we can ensure victory. We can also persuade those still serving Gaddafi to join us."

There were reports that Gaddafi forces were moving towards rebel-held Misurata. Libya's former Interior Minster, General Abdel Fattah Younes al-Abidi, who defected last week, said a massive army convoy was heading towards the town.

Misurata, he said, had no means to defend itself. He warned that "there will be a real slaughter unless something is done".

The National Council formed in Benghazi insisted last night they totally opposed any form of foreign intervention. Spokesman Gouga said, "Libyans will protect themselves and liberate Libya themselves."

Foreigners leaving Libya streamed on to a British frigate yesterday, bringing with them stories of looting and lawlessness that spoke of devastating damage to the oil infrastructure.

Most boarding HMS Cumberland for transit to Malta were oil workers who had been trapped for days in the desert wilderness that spans the south of the country, and had seen drilling rigs being stripped of equipment and local Bedouin robbing at gunpoint.

"There's now no law down there," said Simon Robinson, who had been in charge of one of the rigs. "Gangs are stealing anything they can get their hands on. I had a vehicle stolen directly off me. Three guys appeared with AK-47s. I know exactly which kind of gun it was as I can remember reading the small print on the barrel when one was pointed at me."

Away from the fertile strip that borders the Mediterranean, Libya is largely a barren, arid country with the compounds run by the international oil companies often hundreds of kilometres from the nearest habitation.

It is an area with a long-held reputation for banditry, and many of the oil companies prefer, even in safer times, to bring their people in and out by light aircraft. This escape route was not an option once Libya was engulfed by the revolution.

Robinson, whose rig was in the southeastern drilling zone known as area 103, explained how he and his men were left stranded for several days while he pleaded with his US oil company Occidental to send help.

"The company said it was going to send mercenaries such as Blackwater or an equivalent. But they never arrived.

"Some of my Libyan men said they would go and get help. Two days later they came back with a pick-up truck and two Land-Rovers. We piled the vehicles with whatever supplies we needed and they drove us out of there. I'm so grateful to them for coming back for us."

HMS Cumberland left with more than 200 passengers. The British refugees, who included a 9-year-old girl and her mother, made up a quarter of those rescued. Also on board were Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders and some Europeans.

It was the second time the ship had taken refugees from Benghazi. The previous Saturday it picked up 207 people, and its departure yesterday marked the expected end of the evacuation of British nationals.

Other nations have organised rescue missions. The Chinese Government hired Greek cargo ships and a cruise liner to remove many of the 7000 of its nationals believed stranded in eastern Libya, while the Tunisian Government sent a ship to Benghazi to remove 450 of its people.

The oil industry is not the only industry in which those leaving worked. Foreign nationals have been employed in a variety of essential fields and it is feared their departure will have an impact at a time when the country is already barely functional.

Many hospitals, for example, were dependent on Eastern European doctors and Filipina nurses, most of whom have fled.

Moreover, the claims of damage to Libya's oil infrastructure will be a concern to global economists, as any threat of a long-term reduction of the amount the country can export risks driving international prices higher.

Oil installations nearer the coast - and therefore more easily protected - are understood to have so far escaped relatively unharmed. Nevertheless the Libyan oil company Agico said it had been forced to cut the barrels pumped a day from 400,000 to about 160,000.

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