By BEN HUBBARD
BENGHAZI, Libya – Libyan rebels want to install a parliamentary democracy in place of longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi, one of their top leaders said Sunday, dismissing Western fears that their movement could be hijacked by Islamic extremists.
Gadhafi’s forces, meanwhile, pressed on with attacks Sunday against Misrata, the last key city in the western half of the country still largely under rebel control. Government troops besieged civilian areas for around two hours with Grad rockets, mortar shells and lined a main street with snipers, said a doctor in the city.
Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, vice chairman of the National Provisional Council, described the opposition’s vision for a post-Gadhafi Libya in an interview with The Associated Press.
“Libyans as a whole – and I am one of them – want a civilian democracy, not dictatorship, not tribalism and not one based on violence or terrorism,” he said.
The movement has faced questions about its character and goals from many Western nations even as they delivered the international airstrikes that have pounded Gadhafi’s military forces. So far, the airstrikes have not been enough to give rebel fighters the upper hand over Gadhafi’s superior troops, and Western officials are debating whether arming the rebels should be the next step.
In Washington, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee in the House of Representatives was among several key lawmakers cautioning that the U.S. and its allies needed to know much more about the rebel forces before providing them with weapons.
Mike Rogers, a Republican from Michigan, said on NBC television’s “Meet the Press” that there may be strains of al-Qaida within the rebel ranks and the NATO-led coalition in the campaign against Gadhafi should proceed with caution before arming them.
Libya’s opposition has said any extremists among their ranks would be few in number, and Gadhafi’s own punishing campaigns crushed Islamic militants in the country years ago.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Sunday that his country would neither arm the rebels nor send ground troops to Libya.
“We have taken no decision to arm the rebels, the opposition, the pro-democracy people – whatever one wants to call them,” he told the BBC.
A British diplomatic team arrived Saturday in the rebels’ de facto capital of Benghazi in eastern Libya to speak to members of the opposition council to learn more about their aims, British officials said Sunday.
While acknowledging the importance of Islam in Libyan society, Ghoga insisted that “there is no place for an Islamic state in Libya.”
“Will we accept an extremist government? Never,” he said, dressed in a pinstriped blue suit with a pin of Libya’s pre-Gadhafi flag on his lapel.
“We will not accept radicalism, terrorism or dictatorship. We want a democratic state based on a multiparty system, the peaceful transfer of power, separation of powers, and for Libya to have, from the beginning, a constitution,” he said.
Sunday’s fighting was concentrated around the strategic oil town of Brega, as it has been repeatedly during weeks of back-and-forth battling along Libya’s eastern coast. The rebels, backed by airstrikes, made incremental advances.
Rebels fired truck-mounted rocket launchers, then moved to avoid government counter-strikes, suggesting improving tactics and training.
The council, based in Benghazi, was formed to represent the opposition in the eastern Libyan cities that shook off control of the central government in a series of popular uprisings last month.
Rebel forces – defected army units and armed civilians – have since seized much of Libya’s eastern coast, but have been unable to push westward. Gadhafi’s superior forces had been close to taking Benghazi before a U.N.-mandated no-fly zone and international airstrikes began March 19.
Ghoga said the rebels were counting on numerous factors to push Gadhafi out: growing isolation, international military support, further defections among Gadhafi loyalists and improved organization of rebel troops.
“The noose is tightening around Gadhafi,” Ghoga said, adding that he thought his fall could be in “a matter of days.”
The council rejects all negotiations with the Gadhafi regime, saying they don’t trust it, making military pressure the current tactic of choice.
Ghoga said the working plan is for better organized rebel forces, supported by international airstrikes, to march on the cities of Sirte and Misrata, which lie on the coastal road to the capital, Tripoli.
Residents of these cities will rise up, he said, and join the forces to march on Tripoli, which he said would be the “decisive battle.”
The plan is a long shot at best.
Sirte, Gadhafi’s tribal homeland, remains a well-armed bastion of support, and Gadhafi loyalists have besieged rebel fighters in Misrata’s city center for weeks.
For two hours Sunday morning, Gadhafi’s forces hit Misrata with rockets and other artillery fire, targeting the civilian area of Qasr Ahmad and the port, said a doctor in the city. Before dawn, two shells landed on a field hospital, killing one person and injuring 11, he said.
The government also deployed snipers along the city’s main Tripoli Street, he said. He did not want to be identified by name out of fear for his security.
In Tripoli, an opposition supporter said Sunday that anxiety was spreading in areas of the capital as dozens of people disappear in pre-dawn raids, apparently carried out by Gadhafi’s security apparatus.
“They pick them up from their houses and they disappear. We don’t know if they’re still alive or dead,” said the activist who spoke on condition he not be identified to avoid arrest.
He also described the city as being locked down, saying many people were staying at home, shops were closed and hundreds of cars were lining up for hours at gas stations as people hoard supplies.
Also Sunday, a Turkish ship carrying 250 wounded from Misrata was expected to dock in Benghazi, according to rebel officials.
The boat, which carried medical supplies, was expected to pick up around 60 wounded people being treated in various hospitals in Benghazi, as well as 30 Turks and 40 people from Greece, Ukraine, Britain, Uzbekistan, Germany and Finland.
The U.S. was to have stopped flying strike missions in Libya as of Sunday after it passed control of the air operation to NATO last week. But alliance spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the U.S. approved a request to extend that role until Monday because of “poor weather conditions over the last few days.” She did not elaborate.
An envoy of Gadhafi met with Greece’s prime minister in Athens on Sunday to deliver a message from the Libyan leader, officials there said without giving details of the conversation.
On Friday, envoy Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi had said Gadhafi’s government was attempting to hold talks with the U.S., Britain and France to end the airstrikes and find a way out of the crisis.
Ghoga, 51, rose to prominence with the council’s creation by acting as its official spokesman. A longtime Benghazi lawyer, he lacked the name recognition of other prominent leaders who defected from the Gadhafi regime or opposed it from outside the country.
Ryan Lucas in Brega, Libya; Hadeel al-Shalchi in Tripoli, Libya; and Diaa Hadid in Cairo contributed to this report.
A service of YellowBrix, Inc.