TRIPOLI, Libya — Following a series of NATO airstrikes, rebel forces retook the western mountain town of Yafran on Monday, breaking a month-long siege by forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, news agencies reported.
The western mountain region is the home territory for Libya’s minority Berbers, who have chafed under the rule of Colonel Qaddafi and rose up against his forces when the uprising began. In recent months, loyalist forces have besieged several cities in the region, including the largest, Zintan, which rebel forces said was coming under attack on Monday, Reuters said.
NATO planes and attack helicopters battered targets around Tripoli early Monday and the oil port of Brega on Sunday, in an intensifying effort to break a stalemate in a conflict that is already in its fourth month, and in the third month of NATO airstrikes.
In Brussels, the secretary general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said on Monday that he intended to use the occasion of a ministerial meeting on Wednesday to ask more member countries to contribute to the offensive against the Qaddafi regime, The Associated Press reported.
“Obviously, some of those allies and partners carrying the heavy burden start to ask whether it would be possible to broaden the participation a bit,” Mr. Rasmussen said at a news briefing. “That is a point I will focus on at the defense ministers’ meeting.”
But Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, returning Sunday from a brief visit to the rebel headquarters in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, hinted at concern in Western capitals about what might come after the toppling of Colonel Qaddafi. Mr. Hague said he had pressed the rebel leaders to make early progress on a more detailed plan for a post-Qaddafi government that would include sharing power with some of Colonel Qaddafi’s loyalists.
In particular, Mr. Hague said, the rebels should learn from Iraq’s experience, in which a mass purge of former Saddam Hussein loyalists occurred under the American-backed program of “de-Baathification,” and shun any similar undertaking. The reference was to a policy that many analysts believe helped to propel years of insurgency in Iraq by stripping tens of thousands of officials of jobs.
According to news agency reports, crowds in Benghazi’s streets greeted Mr. Hague and Britain’s overseas aid minister, Andrew Mitchell, with shouts of “Libya free!” and “Qaddafi, go away!” as they met with leaders of the rebels’ Transitional National Council, headed by Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who was justice minister in Colonel Qaddafi’s government until the rebellion began in February. In London, Mr. Hague described the rebel leaders as “genuine believers in democracy and the rule of law,” but said that they should make more detailed post-Qaddafi plans.
He said Britain was encouraging them “to put more flesh on their proposed transition — to lay out in more detail this coming week what would happen on the day that Qaddafi went, who would be running what, how would a new government be formed in Tripoli?” Pressing the point about Qaddafi loyalists, he said the Benghazi leaders were “learning” from Iraq. “No de-Baathification!” he said, before adding, “They now need to publicize that more effectively, to be able to convince members of the current regime that that is something that would work.”
Mr. Hague’s remarks, and others by the American defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, in Afghanistan on Sunday, pointed to complementary concerns among Western governments backing the Libyan rebellion, especially the United States, Britain and France. Those countries are providing the bulk of the aircraft and missiles for the NATO airstrikes, now at an average of nearly 50 a day.
One concern is that the campaign could drag on, exhausting fragile levels of political and popular support, including among restive lawmakers in Washington, London and Paris. The other derives from a possible contradictory outcome, in which the conflict ends abruptly, perhaps with the collapse of Colonel Qaddafi’s forces around Tripoli or his death.
That, some Western officials say, could expose the anti-Qaddafi forces as deeply riven by personal and political rivalries, unready for government and perhaps vulnerable to a fractious scramble for Colonel Qaddafi’s inheritance.
That would make the Western powers’ support for the rebels much riskier — with no way of knowing whether a future government would be any more democratic, respectful of human rights and amenable to a pro-Western policy than the quixotic Colonel Qaddafi, who has run Libya for 42 years.
Dealing with the first of these possible outcomes, Mr. Hague said in a BBC interview that it was impossible to foresee how long the anti-Qaddafi campaign might take. “We’re not going to set a deadline,” he said, adding that it “could be days or weeks or months.”
A similar point was made in Afghanistan on Sunday by Mr. Gates, who told reporters that while it was “only a matter of time” before Colonel Qaddafi was deposed, “I don’t think anyone knows how long.”
Mr. Gates also said there were increasing signs that Colonel Qaddafi’s grip on power was faltering, a view encouraged by a hastening roll call of high-level defectors, the weakening of the Qaddafi forces by the airstrikes, food and fuel shortages in Qaddafi-held cities, and scattered signs that Qaddafi opponents were becoming increasingly restive in some districts of Tripoli.
“I think you see signs that the regime is getting shakier by the day,” Mr. Gates said. “It’s just a question when everybody around Qaddafi decides it’s time to throw in the towel and throw him under the bus.”