Libya Army Reaches Benghazi Outskirts, Says to Halt Operations Sunday to Let Rebels 'Surrender'

The Libyan army announced that it would halt military operations from Sunday to give rebels the chance to lay down their arms and benefit from an amnesty, state news agency Jana reported Thursday.

"The provisional general committee (ministry) of defense has decided to halt military operations against the armed terrorist bands from midnight on Sunday (2200 GMT) ... to give (them) a chance to lay down their arms and benefit from a general amnesty," Jana said.

However, the ministry did not give an ultimatum.

Libyan rebels said Thursday they had shot down two warplanes trying to bomb their eastern bastion Benghazi, as state television claimed major military gains by strongman Moammar Gadhafi's forces.

Libyan television said Gadhafi's troops were on the outskirts of Benghazi, the major Mediterranean city in the east and seat of the opposition trying to unseat Gadhafi.

"The town of Zuwaytinah is under control (of loyalists) and armed forces are on the outskirts of Benghazi," Allibya television said. Zuwaytinah is about 150 kilometers south of Benghazi.

However, a rebel spokesman said the situation was "calm" in the city of more than a million people.

"The Gadhafi forces tried to carry out an air raid on the city but our anti-aircraft defenses repulsed the offensive and two planes were shot down," the spokesman told Agence France Presse, reached by telephone.

However, a doctor in the city said only one plane was shot down.

"The situation is calm although some planes tried to bomb rebel positions in the city. The rebels shot down one of their planes (and it fell) in the suburbs," the doctor said.

"We are gathered in the (central) square outside the courthouse and morale is high," said the doctor, who spoke by telephone.

Libyan television also said loyalists had overrun the rebel bastion of Misrata, the country's third city located 200 kilometers east of Tripoli, a day after Gadhafi promised a "decisive battle" there.

"The armed forces are in control of the city of Misrata. It is now being purged of the terrorist gangs," Allibya television said.

That claim was denied by a rebel spokesman in the city reached by telephone, who said insurgents remained in command.

"We still control the city, even its outskirts. Gadhafi is mobilizing his forces a few kilometers away," the spokesman said.

"We hear sporadic gunfire on the outskirts of the city, but that's all."

The spokesman also reported that 18 people, including three civilians, were "martyred" in fierce fighting on Wednesday. "We inflicted huge losses to the Gadhafi forces, including 60 people killed," he added.

On Tuesday, state television said the army would soon move against Benghazi, and on Wednesday, Gadhafi's son Seif al-Islam predicted that everything would be over in 48 hours.

For his part, a U.S. official told lawmakers that pro-Gadhafi forces were only 160 kilometers from Benghazi and that they were "making advances" quickly due to superior military power.

"The situation is very fluid, but they're making advances," state department political director Bill Burns told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In an interview with Russia Today television broadcast late Wednesday, Gadhafi said Benghazi will fall to the Tripoli government "without our use of military force" as local residents will themselves chase out the "bandits."

"As you see, all are on our side except the bandits. People are constantly appealing to us for help and to rescue them from the bandits," he said in the interview.

"It is Benghazi that particularly begs for help. While it is true that the bandits have occupied buildings, also residential ones, for the purposes of having a human shield for themselves, we believe Benghazi can deal with them without our use of military force."

Source: Agence France Presse

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