Libyans start Ramadan fast amid conflict, divisions


Libyans on both sides of the front line began fasting for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on Monday with no sign of any let-up in the five-month conflict that has divided their country.
Several explosions rocked the capital, Tripoli, overnight as the NATO coalition vowed to push on with a bombing campaign which is meant to protect civilians but is also supporting rebels trying to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Holding firm despite growing international isolation and crippling financial sanctions, Gaddafi sought to play on potential divisions by calling on tribes and soldiers in rebel-controlled areas to rise up and free their cities.
But in the eastern stronghold of Benghazi, businesses have pledged to keep sending food and supplies to the front line to supply a rebellion that now controls about half the country but has struggled to make a significant breakthrough in weeks.
Fayza, a middle-aged woman wearing a headscarf, said after shopping with her husband in Benghazi: “The prices have gone up and there is a bit of cost cutting because of the delayed salaries, but despite that we are happy. This Ramadan feels different, there is freedom this time. We miss the people we have lost, but our hope is freedom.”
After a torrid week in their eastern bastion, where they had to fight off a pocket of Gaddafi loyalists and saw their military commander assassinated, apparently by allied gunmen, the Western-backed rebels have sought to put divisions behind them and retake the initiative.
The insurgents advanced on Tiji, the last government stronghold in the Western Mountains, Zlitan, 160 km (100 miles) east of Tripoli, and Brega, a key oil town protected by some 3,000 heavily armed Gaddafi forces.
Despite controlling vast swathes of territory and winning broadening international recognition, potentially freeing up billions of dollars in frozen funds, splits within the anti-Gaddafi camp are raising concerns over instability and sustained trouble even if the rebels end his 41-year rule.
In a sign of the mounting toll of the conflict, 25 dead bodies were found on a boat carrying nearly 300 African migrants from Libya that arrived on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa on Monday.
Thousands of people, many of them migrants from sub-Saharan Africa fleeing turmoil across North Africa, not just Libya, have sailed to Italy in rickety boats in recent months.
The U.N. refugee agency has said one in 10 migrants fleeing conflict in Libya by sea is likely to drown or die from hunger or exhaustion in appalling conditions during the crossing.
Amid religious music marking the start of Ramadan, Libyan state television broadcast a statement by Defence Minister Abubakr Yunus Jaber urging members of the army who joined rebels in the east to rejoin the fold and “liberate Benghazi”.
“We know that you are forced to do things that are against your principles and the traditions of the Libyan people … such deeds are covered by the general pardon (issued by Gaddafi).”