TRIPOLI, Libya – The Libyan government has conceded that Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa has resigned but says the regime still enjoys the support of his people.
Koussa’s defection to London has been hailed by the rebels as a sign that Moammar Gadhafi’s regime is cracking at the highest levels. But government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said Thursday that Koussa’s decision was personal and “other people will step in and do the job.”
Ibrahim says Koussa had been given permission to go to Tunisia because he was sick with diabetes and high blood pressure. He says the regime didn’t know he would go to London.
Koussa arrived in Britain Wednesday on a flight from Tunisia.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.
Opponents of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi battled Thursday to reverse days of losses on the battlefield but took heart in the defection of one of the autocrat’s closest confidants — a sign that the embattled regime is cracking at the highest levels.
Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa, who is blamed for some of Libya’s brutality and credited for some of its diplomatic successes, is privy to all the inner workings of Gadhafi’s regime. His departure could open the door for some hard intelligence, though Britain refused to offer him immunity from prosecution.
In another blow to the regime, U.S. officials revealed Wednesday that the CIA has sent small teams of operatives into rebel-held eastern Libya while the White House debates whether to arm the opposition.
The moves come as Gadhafi’s regime has regained the military momentum in recent days despite an international air campaign. The rebels have been pushed farther eastward by the government’s superior weaponry, training and organization.
“Moussa Koussa’s resignation is a big accomplishment for the Libyan revolution,” said Khaled, a rebel leader in Zintan who used only his first name for fear of reprisals. “The regime is currently breaking apart from the inside, and no one is safe. So anyone around Gadhafi knows they will be held accountable and will be punished by the international community.”
The British government said Wednesday that Koussa had arrived in Britain from Tunisia and resigned. Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said Koussa “notified us that he was sick and that he was going to Tunisia.”
“We are not waiting for individuals to lead the struggle,” Ibrahim told reporters in Tripoli, the capital. “This is the struggle of a whole nation. We are not relying on individuals, no matter how high-ranking they are. And so if everyone feels tired or sick or exhausted, they want to take a rest, it just happens. But I’m not confirming anything.”
Ibrahim said Gadhafi and his family all remain in Libya.
Despite the setbacks and ongoing airstrikes — now led by NATO — Gadhafi loyalists have been logging successes on the battlefield, retaking much of the territory the rebels had captured since airstrikes began March 19.
The latest fighting centered on Brega, a town important to Libya’s oil industry on the coastal road that leads to Tripoli. It has gone back and forth between rebel and loyalist hands, and on Thursday it was a no man’s land, with Gadhafi’s forces at the western gate and rebels east of the city.
The rebels came under heavy shelling by Gadhafi’s forces. Black smoke billowed in the air over Brega as mortars exploded.
Rebels fired back from sand dunes, chanting “Allahu akbar” or “God is great” with each rocket fired. Spotters with binoculars watched where they landed and ordered adjustments.
“Gadhafi’s forces advanced to about 30 kilometers (18 miles) east of Brega,” said rebel fighter Fathi Muktar, 41. Overnight, he said the rebels had temporarily pushed them back, but by morning they were at the gates of Brega. “There were loads of wounded at the front lines this morning,” he said of rebel casualties.
Many people also have fled Ajdabiya, a rebel-held city about 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the east, for fear that government forces were on their way.
The fighting has highlighted the rebels’ weaknesses: some ran screaming to cars after being frightened by the outgoing fire from their own side.
Koussa is not the first high-ranking member of the regime to quit — the justice and interior ministers resigned early in the conflict and joined the rebellion based in the east. Koussa, however, is a close confidant of Gadhafi’s.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the resignation showed the regime is “fragmented, under pressure and crumbling.”
Koussa was Libya’s chief of intelligence for more than a decade. The opposition blames him for the assassinations of dissidents in western capitals and for orchestrating the 1988 Lockerbie bombing and the bombing of another jet over Niger a year later. The links have never been confirmed.
In later years, however, Koussa played an important role in persuading Western nations to lift sanctions on Libya and remove its name from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. He led settlements of Lockerbie, offered all information about Libya’s nuclear program and gave London and Washington information about Islamic militants after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“His defection is a serious blow” to Gadhafi, Elliott Abrams, a former assistant secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, said in a story posted on the Council on Foreign Relations’ website. “This is the first loss of such a close comrade,” he said, adding that he may have be able to identify other potential defectors.
Abrams, who met Koussa in 2004 in negotiations over Libya’s handover of weapons of mass destruction programs, described him as a handsome, well-dressed man speaking perfect English. Koussa attended Michigan State University in the 1970s.
Abrams said the simple fact that Koussa was able to make it to England “suggests that the regime is falling apart despite its battlefield victories in the last two days.” His departure suggest that Gadhafi’s inner circle “now know how this story ends, and do not wish to be with the dictator when that end comes,” he said.
The poorly equipped rebels, however, still seem no match for Gadhafi’s troops. Their setbacks are hardening the U.S. view that they are probably incapable of prevailing without decisive Western intervention, a senior U.S. intelligence official told The Associated Press.
The U.S. has made clear that it is considering providing arms to the rebels. Still, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday no decision has been made yet.
“We’re not ruling it out or ruling it in,” he said.
Obama said in a national address Monday night that U.S. troops would not be used on the ground in Libya.