Libyan rebels flee as Obama authorizes covert support

Wed Mar 30, 2011 6:30pm EDT
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By Mark Hosenball and Alexander Dziadosz

WASHINGTON/AJDABIYAH, Libya (Reuters) - As Libyan rebels fled in headlong retreat from the superior arms and tactics of Muammar Gaddafi's troops on Wednesday, U.S. officials said President Barack Obama had signed a secret order authorizing covert support for the rebels.

While the United States, France and Britain have raised the possibility of arming the rebels, they have all stressed that no decision had yet been taken.

As Gadaffi's army pushed back the rebels, their lack of heavy weapons and feeble fighting capabilities exposed the vulnerability of their forces in the absence of Western air strikes to tip the scales in their favor.

Despite some dissent within the Western military coalition attacking Gadaffi's forces, news that Obama had given the covert authorization surfaced as he and other U.S. and allied officials began speaking openly about the possibility of sending arms to the rebels.

Obama signed the order, known as a presidential "finding," within the last two or three weeks, according to four U.S. government sources familiar with the matter.

Such findings are a principal form of presidential directive used to authorize secret operations by the CIA. This is a necessary legal step before such action can take place but does not mean that it will.

"As is common practice for this and all administrations, I am not going to comment on intelligence matters," White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.

"We're assessing and reviewing options for all types of assistance that we could provide to the Libyan people, and have consulted directly with the opposition and our international partners about these matters." The CIA declined to comment.   Continued...

<p>Rebels guard their final position along the front line on the road east of Brega as forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi pushed them further from strategic oil refineries in eastern Libya, March 30, 2011. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly</p>