Gaddafis forces launch fresh air strikes on rebel-held east

Cairo: Libyan forces on Friday launched fresh air strikes on the rebel-held east as troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi carried out extensive searches in his stronghold of Tripoli to thwart a planned massive protest by his opponents.

A Libyan government warplane targeted a military base close to the rebel-controlled Ajdabiya city but caused no casualties or damage, witnesses were quoted as saying by the media.

The air strike, which was carried out for the third straight day, came as protesters called for a massive demonstration in the capital Tripoli coinciding with the Friday prayers to demand the ouster of Gaddafi, who has been in power for 41 years.

Protests last week after Friday prayers in several districts of Tripoli had ended in bloodshed when Gaddafi`s supporters fired indiscriminately on civilians.

Forces still loyal to 68-year-old Gaddafi today searched vehicles in Tripoli, where they set up many check points ahead of the opposition`s planned demonstration.

In Washington, US President Barack Obama said Gaddafi has lost legitimacy and must leave office, as he authorised the use of military aircraft for humanitarian purposes in the strife-torn African nation.

"Muammar Gaddafi has lost legitimacy to lead, and he must leave," Obama said at a White House news conference.

The US President said the "violence must stop…

Those who perpetrate violence against the Libyan people will be held accountable… The aspirations of the Libyan people for freedom, democracy and dignity must be met."

He said he had approved the use of US military aircraft to help move Egyptians "who have fled to the Tunisian border to get back home to Egypt."

Obama said he had also authorised USAID to charter additional civilian aircraft to help people from other countries find their way home.

Libyan authorities, meanwhile, blocked foreign journalists from leaving the main media hotel in Tripoli to report on any protests, BBC said.

It quoted a government spokesman as saying that correspondents were being kept in the hotel for their own protection in case of violence from "al-Qaeda elements".

A defiant Gaddafi has refused to give up power as he warned against any foreign intervention, saying it will lead to "a bloody war" in which "thousands of Libyans would die".

"We will not accept (an) American intervention. This will lead to a bloody war and thousands of Libyans will die if America and NATO enter Libya," he said at a public gathering on Wednesday.

Libyan fighter jets had yesterday pounded rebel-held oil terminal town of Brega, a day after clashes between the two sides left at least 14 people dead in the region.

Gaddafi`s son Saif Al-Islam told Britain`s Sky News earlier that the air strikes were aimed at scaring the rebels rather than causing damage.

"This (Brega) is the oil and gas hub of Libya," he said, vowing to recapture the strategic town. "All of us, we eat, we live because of Brega. Without Brega six million people have no future because we export all of our oil from there."

Sending a tough message to the Gaddafi regime, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Luis Moreno-Ocampo said in the Hague that no one had the right to massacre civilians. He said Gaddafi, his family and close aides would be investigated.

US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said in Washington that America had frozen assets worth USD 32 billion of the authoritarian Libyan regime and its leader Gaddafi.

This followed an executive order, signed by President, Obama, that directed the officials to freeze the assets of Gaddafi and four of his children, as well as those of Libyan government and its agencies, including the central bank and Libyan Investment Authority — the nation`s sovereign wealth fund.

The US also rejected Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez proposal of setting up an international commission to try to work out a solution in Libya.

"If he (Gaddafi) is not responding to the many calls across the international community to step down, it is uncertain to me what an international commission is going to accomplish," State Department spokesman P J Crowley said.

"Colonel Gaddafi needs to step down. As the (US) President said, history is moving against him. He needs to recognise that and step aside for the good of his people and the good of his country," Crowley said, as France too rejected the Venezuelan offer.

Hundreds of mourners in Libya yesterday buried those killed in recent clashes between pro-and anti-government forces in the country`s east, Al-Jazeera said.

The mourners shouted slogans against Gaddafi like "the blood of martyrs will not be spilled in vain"; "Gaddafi get out, Libyans don`t want you!"; and "Gaddafi you`re crazy!"

Over one lakh people have fled Libya, where the violence in the uprising against Gaddafi has killed at least 1,000, according to UN estimates.