Wednesday, April 6, 2011

NATO Says Libya Strikes Are Growing After a Pause

(Washington Post) - TRIPOLI, Libya — Stung by criticism from rebel leaders, NATOofficials said Wednesday that the pace of attacks on the forces of Col.Muammar el-Qaddafi was increasing, after a slight slowdown as the coalition handed off responsibility earlier in the week.

Gen. Abdul Fattah Younes, the head of the rebel army, had lashed out at his Western allies during a news conference in Benghazi on Tuesday, accusing NATO of tardiness and indecision. “What is NATO doing?” he asked. “Civilians are dying every day. They use the excuse of collateral damage.”
He charged that NATO was enforcing the United Nations-sanctioned no-fly zone too equally, barring the rebels from providing cover for their troops with the few warplanes he said they had repaired. “They said, ‘No, don’t use your planes,’ ” he said.
A spokeswoman for NATO, Carmen Romero, said the alliance had flown 137 sorties on Monday and 186 on Tuesday and that it planned to fly 198 on Wednesday, The Associated Press reported.
Rebels said the Qaddafi forces appeared to have adopted new tactics in response to the Western airstrikes, using mortars far more than tanks, either to present smaller targets or because the tanks were wiped out. “They are changing the technique and they are shelling by mortar now everywhere, so instead of no-fly zone we have no safe zone,” said Aiman, a doctor in the besieged city of Misurata whose last name was withheld for safety reasons, in an Internet message.
The French prime minister, Alain JuppĂ©, echoed that, telling French radio that NATO was in danger of becoming “bogged down” because the Qaddafi forces were moving into residential areas, making it difficult for Western pilots to hit their targets without killing civilians, Reuters reported.
In the rebel-held city of Misurata in western Libya and on the eastern front with the rebels around the oil town of Brega, Qaddafi forces continued to hammer rebels with rockets, artillery and mortars, as rebel leaders expressed exasperation at the limits of NATO’s support.
The rebels in the east played cat and mouse on Wednesday with the superior Qaddafi forces entrenched in Brega, advancing a few miles from their position about 15 miles outside the city, firing rockets and then rushing back to avoid the highly accurate artillery fire that inevitably ensues. In contrast to Tuesday, when the skies were largely empty, several airstrikes were seen on Wednesday, a doctor with the rebels said. But the Qaddafi forces were clearly in control of Brega, and there seemed little chance of dislodging them without the heavy airstrikes that two weeks ago sent the loyalist forces reeling toward the Qaddafi stronghold of Surt.
An American envoy, Chris Stevens, had a second day of meetings with members of the Transitional National Council, the rebel leadership group. The sessions were held behind closed doors, and the participants have yet to speak publicly about the talks.
Obama administration officials have said recently that they are leery of arming the rebel fighters until they have a better grasp of who, exactly, their leaders are, both politically and militarily, and whether they have any connections to radical Islam.
On Tuesday, the Qaddafi forces reversed some minor rebel gains with rocket attacks and pushed vehicle patrols northeast from their positions. They forced the rebels to withdraw nearly to Ajdabiya, to be safely out of the superior range of the loyalist forces’ weapons.
Resting on dunes and knolls, soldiers peered down the road toward Brega nervously. They said that it appeared that the Qaddafi forces, less pressured now by airstrikes, had managed to resupply their forward troops, and that they were emboldened and dangerous.
The rebels had pulled back so quickly under fire that their casualties on Tuesday were light, said Dr. Habib Multadi, who was organizing the evacuation of wounded from the front. But as cargo trucks moved more ammunition forward at dusk, their force seemed stuck.
In the rebel capital, Benghazi, a military spokesman said he was not ashamed to admit that the rebel forces needed help.
“To your people I would like to say, ‘Don’t leave us,’ ” the spokesman, Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, said in an interview. “We need support. We need your support.”
In Misurata, rebels said they were losing ground to a constricting siege by Qaddafi forces. “The Qaddafi forces are expanding their territorial gains every day,” said Mohamed, a rebel spokesman whose name was withheld to protect his family.
The Qaddafi forces had shelled the port so heavily, he said, that the local authorities closed and evacuated it, sending a ship from Benghazi back into deeper waters.
Writing from the hospital, he said three people were killed Tuesday — including a 10-year-old child and a member of the hospital staff — and a total of seven by the end of the day on Monday.

David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Tripoli, and C. J. Chivers from Brega, Libya

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