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Libyan rebels take 2 key towns after air strikes; pope calls for cease-fire (UPDATES) (VIDEO)

Coalition air strikes paved the way for rebels to retake two strategic oil ports, and close on a third, as Pope Benedict called for a cease-fire.

Libya ajdabiya gaddafi pope 2011 3 27Enlarge
A Libyan rebel waves the rebellion flag on a loyalist army tank at a site bombed by coalition air force in the town of Ajdabiya on March 26, 2011 as forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi were retreating after rebels recaptured the key eastern town in their first significant victory since the launch of the Western-led air strikes a week ago. (Patrick Baz/Getty Images)

Seizing momentum from air strikes by international forces, Libyan rebels pushed farther west Sunday, a day after recapturing two key towns from forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, as Pope Benedict called for an end to hostilities on both sides.

The rebels said they had retaken Brega, an oil port, late on Saturday, hours after recapturing the nearby town of Ajdabiya, about 100 miles on the road toward the capital, Tripoli, from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Ajdabiya was lost to pro-government forces last week.

Earlier Sunday, Al Jazeera reported that the rebels had reached Uqayla, more than 68 miles west of Ajdabiya and the last town traveling west before the major oil exporting terminal of Ras Lanuf. He was reporting from Ras Lanuf. According to CNN, rebel forces said they were stationed on one side of the city, while Gaddafi's forces were on the other.

Planes belonging to a coalition of international forces led by the United States, France and Britain flew at least 96 air strike missions in a 24-hour period that ended Saturday, according to statistics released by the Pentagon.

A Libyan government spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, told reporters in Tripoli late on Saturday that Gaddafi's forces suffered heavy losses in personnel and equipment as a result of coalition air strikes in Ajdabiya, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“They are trying to push the country to the brink of a civil war.”
~Khaled Kaim, Libyan deputy foreign minister

Witnesses reported seeing the bodies of more than a dozen government soldiers in Ajdabiya, according to Voice of America. However, in an interview airing on Sunday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, citing U.S. intelligence reports, says Gaddafi and his forces were heaping dead bodies on the sites of last week's allied airstrikes so they could blame the West for death tolls, according to the Daily Beast.

U.K. Defense Secretary Liam Fox said British Tornado aircraft fired guided missiles at armored vehicles that the coalition deemed were threatening the civilian population of Ajdabiya.

French warplanes, meanwhile, destroyed at least five Libyan combat planes and two helicopters over a 24-hour period in Misurata, a rebel-held town east of Tripoli, its Ministry of Defense said.

Coalition officials say the air strikes are aimed at enforcing a no-fly zone and protecting civilians in Libya, but Libyan government officials accused international forces of choosing sides.

"This is the objective of the coalition now, it is not to protect civilians because now they are directly fighting against the armed forces," Khaled Kaim, the deputy foreign minister, said in Tripoli, according to the Guardian. "They are trying to push the country to the brink of a civil war."

Libyan officials on Friday voiced intent to develop a "road map" toward a settlement of the conflict, as envisioned by the African Union, which has called for an end to air strikes and the naval blockade of Libya, VOA reported. Libyan officials met with envoys Friday from five other African nations in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa.

The United States on Saturday praised the African Union for convening the Addis Ababa conference, which called for a democratic transition period leading to elections in Libya. Libyan officials were barred from the conference when a Libyan rebel group failed to attend.

Pope Benedict XVI, meanwhile, apparently addressing both sides in the conflict which has entered its fifth week, has called for the "suspension of the use of arms." Speaking at his Sunday blessing, he addressed his appeal to "international bodies," and "those who hold military and political responsibility."

U.S. President Barack Obama defended America's leadership in the Libyan offensive in his weekly radio address Saturday.

"The United States should not — and cannot — intervene every time there's a crisis somewhere in the world," Obama said, CNN reported. "But I firmly believe that when innocent people are being brutalized; when someone like Gaddafi threatens a bloodbath that could destabilize an entire region; and when the international community is prepared to come together to save many thousands of lives — then it's in our national interest to act. And it's our responsibility. This is one of those times."

— Freya Petersen

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/110327/libya-brega-gaddafi-oil-video