Muammar Qaddafi’s forces fire their first SCUD missile as NATO closes in on Tripoli


By , Zintan, Richard Spencer, Middle East Correspondent

9:00PM BST 15 Aug 2011

 

The rebels were attempting to identify the trajectory of the missile which was fired from Col Gaddafi’s stronghold of Sirte even as his envoys headed for new talks with the opposition and a United Nations special envoy in Tunisia.

Despite rumours that he is preparing to flee, the opposition fear Col Gaddafi is preparing a desperate last stand in Tripoli and towns still loyal to him in the face of recent rebel advances on two fronts which has cut off his crucial supply routes.

In the early hours of Monday morning, the defiant Libyan leader addressed his people, calling on them to take up arms and “defend their fatherland” and predicting a swift end for “the rats” and the “coloniser” – the rebels and Nato.

But in a further sign of his weakening position, his deputy interior minister, said to be a long-time devoted loyalist, then apparently defected. Nasser al-Mabrouk Abdullah arrived in the Egyptian capital Cairo with nine members of his family claiming he was taking a holiday.

The launch of the ballistic Scud missile, which has a range of more than 200 miles, was detected by a US Aegis destroyer in the Mediterranean on Sunday, officials told The Daily Telegraph.

The regime is thought to possess more than 100 of the Scud B variant missiles. It agreed to destroy them in a deal to end sanctions a decade ago, but rows over their replacement mean the systems remain intact.

Although military planners believe that the majority of the missiles were taken out in recent air strikes, several mobile brigades are thought still to exist.

The missile fired may have been targeting rebel troop formations around Ajdabiyah, a key junction town seized from the regime earlier this year and home to the advance military headquarters of the rebels. It is believed the missile landed in the desert.

“That it didn’t hit anything or kill anyone is not the point. It’s a weapon of mass destruction that Col Gaddafi is willing to train on his own people,” said one Western official.

Sirte, which was Col Gaddafi’s birthplace and lies between Misurata and the rebels’ eastern front line in Brega, is a potential site for a last stand if Tripoli comes under attack. While consolidating their hold on most residential parts of Brega, the rebels are also now just 30 miles from Tripoli to the west, having taken part of the town of Zawiyah, and 50 miles to the south, after claiming to have taken the garrison town of Gharyan.

From Sirte, the regime could still move Scuds through the desert to target the main rebel strongholds such as Misurata and Zintan. Col Gaddafi has a history of using Scud missiles to lash back at attacks.

The missiles were fired at the southern Italian island of Lampedusa after the 1986 bombing of Tripoli by President Ronald Reagan.

Western officials pointed to the seizure by rebels of much of Zawiyah at the weekend and the apparent defection of Nasser al-Mabrouk Abdullah as a sign of Col Gaddafi’s weakening position.

Mr Abdullah was appointed a minister in June, part of a reshuffle following earlier defections.

He had been director of intelligence and was interior minister until 2006, when the shooting dead of 11 Islamist protesters outside the Italian embassy was deemed “disproportionate use of force” even for Libya and he was sacked.

Nevertheless, he remained among the most hardline loyalists of the Gaddafi apparatus.

Meanwhile, Libyan loyalists and rebels met yesterday as efforts to negotiate an end to the conflict intensified.

They was also some confusion about the presence of a UN envoy holding a meeting in Tunis over the coming days. Libyan government and opposition representatives have reportedly been meeting in a Tunisian hotel, but a regime spokesman continued to rule out any negotiated departure for the Libyan leader.

Col Gaddafi himself gave a live broadcast in the early hours of yesterday morning by telephone, defiantly predicting victory over the “rats”.

“The Libyan people will remain and the revolution will remain,” he shouted.

“Be prepared, go forth, get your weapons, to liberate Libya inch by inch from the traitors and from NATO.”

His troops continued to put up resistance in Zawiyah after the attack that dislodged them from the south of the town, including the main road from Tripoli to the western border with Tunisia, on Saturday. Rebels claimed to have control of 80 per cent of the city of 300,000 people, but admitted that government snipers were still inflicting serious casualties.

Doctors in the rebel garrison town of Zintan said that they had treated dozens of men injured in the fighting. Fourteen men were killed on Sunday alone.

“We are treating many wounded in the battle, they have gunshot wounds from snipers mainly,” said a urologist who had flown in from Qatar to treat casualties.

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