Gaddafi shells towns, rebels pinned down in Libya's east

By REUTERS
March 22, 2011 23:51

US, France agree on NATO role for continued strikes against Libya; Gaddafi tanks shell Misrata, attempt to take rebel-held Zintan.




Libyanat naval facility damaged by air strikes

Libyanat naval facility damaged by air strikes 311 R. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah)

TRIPOLI - Muammar Gaddafi's forces attacked two west Libyan towns, killing dozens, while rebels were pinned down in the east and NATO tried to resolve a dispute over who should lead the Western air campaign.

With anti-Gaddafi rebels struggling to capitalize on the ground on the air strikes against Libyan tanks and air defenses, Western countries had still to decide who would take over command once Washington pulled back in a few days.

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In the latest fighting on Tuesday, Gaddafi's tanks shelled the rebel-held western town of Misrata and casualties included four children killed when their car was hit, residents said, adding the death toll for Monday alone had reached 40.

Residents painted a grim picture of the situation in Misrata, under siege by Gaddafi loyalists for weeks, with tanks in the city center and doctors operating on people with bullet and shrapnel wounds in hospital corridors.

"The situation here is very bad. Tanks started shelling the town this morning," a resident called Mohammed told Reuters by telephone from outside the city's hospital, adding: "Snipers are taking part in the operation too. A civilian car was destroyed killing four children on board, the oldest is aged 13 years."

But Libya's deputy foreign minister said the army was not conducting offensive operations, only defending itself. Western forces are more interested in helping rebels than protecting civilians, he said, and are determined to assassinate Gaddafi.

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"That's the problem now we are seeing, the coalition forces they are part of the war against the legitimate government," Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim told Reuters.

In the first apparent air force loss of the campaign, a US F-15E crashed in Libya overnight and its two crew members were rescued, the US military said. The crash was likely caused by mechanical failure and not hostile fire, it said.

Explosions and anti-aircraft fire have reverberated across Tripoli for three nights and state television reported several attacks by the "crusader enemy". Twenty Tomahawk missiles were fired at Libyan targets overnight, the US military said.

A Reuters correspondent taken to a naval facility in east Tripoli by Libyan officials saw four Soviet-made missile carrier trucks which were destroyed. They were parked inside a building whose roof had collapsed, leaving piles of smoldering rubble.

"Yesterday six missiles and one bomb from a warplane hit this facility," said Captain Fathi al-Rabti, an officer at the facility. "It was a massive explosion."

Rebels pinned down in East

Gaddafi's forces were trying to seize the western rebel-held town of Zintan near the Tunisian border in an attack using heavy weapons. One resident said 10 people were killed on Tuesday. People fled to seek shelter in mountain caves.

Security analysts say it is unclear what will happen if the Libyan leader digs in, especially since Western powers have made it clear they would be unwilling to see Libya partitioned between a rebel-held east and Gaddafi-controlled west.

Rebels in east Libya were stuck just outside Ajdabiyah on Tuesday, making no advance on the strategic town despite three nights of Western air strikes on the oil-producing state.

At the front line in the desert scrub about 5 km (3 miles) outside the town, gateway to the rebel-held east, fighters said air strikes were helping to cripple Gaddafi's heavy armor.

When asked why rebel units had not advanced, Ahmed al-Aroufi, a rebel fighter at the front line, told Reuters: "Gaddafi has tanks and trucks with missiles."

Commenting on the air campaign to protect civilians in this uprising against Gaddafi's 41-year rule, Aroufi said: "We don't depend on anyone but God, not France or America. We started this revolution without them through the sweat of our own brow, and that is how we will finish it."

But sheltering from tank fire behind sand dunes near Ajdabiyah, rebel fighters lack leadership, experience and any clear plan of action. One fighter, Mohamed Bhreka, asked who was in command, shrugged and said: "Nobody is. We are volunteers. We just come here. There is no plan."

With Western allies reluctant to send in ground forces, it was unclear whether such a disorganized group can dislodge tanks concealed from the air amongst densely packed towns.

Washington, wary of being drawn into another war after long campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, has ruled out specific action to overthrow Gaddafi, although France said on Monday it hoped the Libyan government would collapse from within.

Coordinating role for NATO

US President Barack Obama on Tuesday won British and French support for a NATO role in the air campaign with Washington wanting to cede operational control within days.

One US official said Washington believed NATO would effectively have to take operational, if not political, control due to its superior command structure.

"They are still looking at NATO," one US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It could be a subtle NATO lead but still a NATO lead."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said France and the United States had agreed on how to use NATO command structures but did not agree any further details.

France and Britain have agreed to put together a "political steering body" of foreign ministers of countries participating in the coalition and the Arab League which would meet in the next few days in Brussels, London or Paris and hold regular meetings, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told parliament.

Two Qatari fighters and two 17 transport aircraft landed in Crete on Tuesday and the US military said the aircraft would be "up and flying" over Libya by the weekend. That will be the first direct outside Arab involvement in the operation.

Four more Qatari aircraft and 24 UAE warplanes were also expected in Crete on their way to a forward base in Sicily.

In Tripoli, Reuters correspondents said some residents, emboldened by a third night of air strikes, dropped their customary praise of Gaddafi and said they wanted him gone.

"My children are afraid but I know it's changing," one man said. "This is the end. The government has no control any more."


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