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.
“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,” Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, vice chairman of the National Provisional Council, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
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.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Sunday that his country would neither arm the rebels nor send ground troops to Libya, in comments that reflected the confusion among foreign governments about the rebel movement’s nature.
“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.
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 battle along Libya’s eastern coast. The rebels, backed by airstrikes, made incremental advances.
Sunday, rebels fired truck-mounted rocket launchers, then moved to avoid government counter-strikes, suggesting improving tactics and training.
The council, based in the rebels’ de facto capital of 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 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.
Arab news channels reported heavy shelling in Misrata on Sunday. Medical officials said Saturday that shelling and sniper fire by government forces had killed 37 civilians in two days while incinerating the city’s main stocks of flour and sugar.
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 that are currently 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. said it stopped flying strike missions in Libya starting Sunday, having passed the mission’s military burden to NATO. NATO’s on-scene commander can request American strikes, which Washington must approve.
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.
Ghoga, whose father served as Libya’s ambassador to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon, studied law in Libya before earning his degree at the University of Damascus in Syria.
In Libya, he was involved in two high-profile — and ultimately unsuccessful — human rights cases.
After the Libyan government killed some 1,200 prisoners during riots in the Abu Salim prison in 1996, he filed a petition on behalf of some prisoners’ families to get information on their deaths, he said.
A Libyan court ruled in their favor, though a later effort to file a criminal case in the killings failed, he said.
“There was no movement on it because the principal actor was the Gadhafi regime and Gadhafi himself,” he said.
In 2009, Human Rights Watch said Libya had failed to provide a public account of what happened during the prison riots. It said the Libyan government had not prosecuted anyone, though it had paid compensation to some families.
In the case of the Bulgarian nurses sentenced to death on accusations they infected Libyan children with AIDS, Ghoga represented the victims’ families. Though the case never resulted in prosecution for those behind the outbreak, Ghoga says it led to the investigation that determined the cause.