Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa has arrived in Britain and has declared he is leaving Moammar Gadhafi’s government.
The British foreign office said Wednesday that Koussa traveled from Tunisia to London under his own free will, telling officials he is resigning his post. British officials urged Mr. Gadhafi’s other supporters to desert him as well.
A Libyan government spokesman denied the foreign minister has defected, saying he is in Britain on a “diplomatic mission.” Libya’s justice and interior ministers resigned early in the conflict and joined the rebels fighting in the east.
U.S. officials called Koussa’s resignation “very significant,” and an example of growing splits inside the Libyan government. The foreign minister has been a close confidant of Mr. Gadhafi and served as his intelligence chief for more than a decade.
In Washington, the White House repeated that no decision has been made to provide arms to rebel forces in Libya. Wednesday’s statement was issued amid reports that President Barack Obama has approved a secret authorization for covert efforts to support anti-government rebels.
The New York Times reported that the CIA has put an unknown number of operatives into Libya to gather intelligence and make contact with anti-Gadhafi forces. The newspaper said the CIA declined comment on the report, which quoted what it called current and former British officials as saying British special forces and intelligence officers also are in the North African nation.
Earlier Wednesday, troops loyal to Mr. Gadhafi drove anti-government rebels from key coastal cities they had seized days before, reversing opposition gains made since international airstrikes began.
Libyan rebels retreated amid intense fighting around the strategic oil towns of Ras Lanuf and Brega. Many opposition fighters fell back to the city of Ajdabiya, from where residents were seen fleeing along the road toward the opposition stronghold of Benghazi.
Pro-Gadhafi forces were shelling Brega and a rebel military spokesman said he expected the loyalists to enter the city by Wednesday night.
The spokesman also said as many as 3,600 heavily armed members of the Chadian Republican Guard are now fighting alongside Gadhafi loyalists. He dismissed concerns that members of al-Qaida are fighting with the Libyan rebels.
On Tuesday, U.S. Admiral James Stavridis told a congressional hearing that groups such as al-Qaida and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia have a small presence among the Libyan opposition. He also said the opposition leadership appeared to be “responsible men and women” fighting the Libyan government.
A prominent U.S.-based rights group said Wednesday that Mr. Gadhafi’s forces laid land mines around Ajdabiya when the coastal city was under their control earlier this month. In a statement from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, Human Rights Watch said a civil defense team found more than 50 anti-vehicle and anti-personnel mines in a heavily traveled area.
A U.S. military spokesman said coalition airplanes resumed bombing pro-Gadhafi troops Wednesday, although the timing and location of those strikes was not specified.
Western nations began enforcing a United Nations-authorized no-fly zone over Libya on March 19 to protect civilians from harm. voa