Libya: Arab League condemns 'bombardment of civilians'

Western forces attack on Libya's air defenses comes under criticism from Arab League chief; US says air defenses destroyed.

By REUTERS
March 20, 2011 16:59
3 minute read.
Rebel fighter runs for cover in front of vehicles

Libya bombing 311. (photo credit: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic)

 
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TRIPOLI - Western forces pounded Libya's air defenses and patrolled its skies on Sunday, but their day-old intervention hit a serious diplomatic setback as the Arab League chief condemned the "bombardment of civilians".

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi vowed to defeat the Western powers' "terrorism" and sent his troops and tanks into the rebel-held coastal city of Misrata, residents said.

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European and US forces unleashed warplanes and cruise missiles against Gaddafi on Saturday in a United Nations-backed intervention to prevent the veteran leader from killing civilians as he fights an uprising against his 41-year rule.

But Arab League chief Amr Moussa said what was happening was not what Arabs had envisaged when they called for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya.

"What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians," he said.

In comments carried by Egypt's official state news agency, Moussa also said he was calling for an emergency Arab League meeting.

Arab backing for a no-fly zone provided crucial underpinning for the passage of the UN Security Council resolution last week that paved the way for the Western intervention, the biggest against an Arab country since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

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Withdrawal of that support would make it much harder to pursue what some defense analysts say could in any case be a difficult, open-ended campaign with an uncertain outcome.

The US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said the no-fly zone was effectively in place. But he told CBS the endgame of military action was "very uncertain" and acknowledged it could end in a stalemate with Gaddafi.

Mullen said he had seen no reports of civilian casualties from the Western strikes. But Russia said there had been such casualties and called on Britain, France and the United States to halt the "non-selective use of force".

The aerial assault stopped in its tracks the advance by Gaddafi's troops into the eastern city of Benghazi, and left the burned and shattered remains of his tanks and troop carriers littering the main road outside the rebel stronghold.

The charred bodies of at least 14 government soldiers lay scattered in the desert.

"Gaddafi is like a chicken and the coalition is plucking his feathers so he can't fly. The revolutionaries will slit his neck," said Fathi Bin Saud, a 52-year-old rebel carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, surveying the wreckage.

A Libyan government health official said the death toll from the Western air strikes had risen to 64 on Sunday after some of the wounded died. But it was impossible to independently verify the reports as government minders refused to take Western reporters in the capital Tripoli to the site of the bombings.

Residents said forces loyal to Gaddafi entered the center of the rebel-held city of Misrata on Sunday with tanks, and several people had been killed by gunfire. "Two people were killed so far today by snipers. They (snipers) are still on the rooftops. They are backed with four tanks, which have been patrolling the town. It's getting very difficult for people to come out," one resident, called Sami, told Reuters by telephone.

"There are also boats encircling the port and preventing aid from reaching the town."

Abdelbasset, a spokesman for the rebels in Misrata, told Reuters: "There is fighting between the rebels and Gaddafi's forces. Their tanks are in the center of Misrata ... There are so many casualties we cannot count them."

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