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Qaddafi troops attack Misrata as NATO pounds Tripoli

A Libyan rebel fighter holds mortars before firing at their position on the outskirts of Zlitan near Misrata's western front lin

Source : Agencies
TRIPOLI | 08 Jun 2011

Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, increasingly cornered under a stunning upturn in NATO airstrikes, lashed back with renewed shelling of the western city of Misrata Wednesday, killing at least 11 rebel fighters.

The offensive followed a lull in NATO bombing of Tripoli on Wednesday, after 24 hours of some of the heaviest bombardments of the Libyan capital since air strikes began in March.

“Misrata is under heavy shelling ... Qaddafi forces are shelling Misrata from three sides: east, west and south,” rebel spokesman Hassan Al-Misrati told Reuters from inside the besieged town.

“He has sent thousands of troops from all sides and they are trying to enter the city. They are still outside, though.”

There was no immediate comment from Qaddafi’s government.

A rebel fighter, who declined to be named, vowed revenge. “One day soon, God willing, we will be at Bab Al-Aziziya (Qaddafi’s compound) and we will find Qaddafi and his military forces and we will kill him,” he told Reuters.

The international alliance said it remained determined to keep pounding Qaddafi forces from the air, but would play no military role in the transition to democratic rule in oil-rich North African country once the erratic leader’s 42-year rule was ended.

In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Qaddafi’s days in power were clearly numbered, making it imperative for the international community, the United Nations in particular, to gear up to help Libyans establish a new form of government.

The alliance says the bombing aims to protect civilians from the Libyan leader’s military, which crushed popular protests against his rule in February, leaving many dead. The conflict has now become a civil war.

“For Qaddafi, it is no longer a question of if he goes but when he goes,” Rasmussen said at a meeting of the defense ministers from the 28 members of the North Atlantic military alliance.

“We do not see a lead role for NATO in Libya once this crisis is over,” he said. “We see the United Nations playing a lead role in the post-Qaddafi, post-conflict scenario.” The alliance said it was acting in the skies over Libya purely in accordance with the UN mandate to protect the Libyan people from Qaddafi. The resolution did not include any involvement in post-conflict peacekeeping.

French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said: “NATO has a military vocation and rebuilding Libya is a civilian issue.

So really simply, in order to rebuild Libya, if the Libyan people ask for it, because it is first of all an issue for the Libyan people, it is the job for civilian international institutions — and not military — to bring a response.” The Libyan rebels, too, have made it clear they have no appetite to see alliance ground forces in the country once the conflict is finished.

But they remain grateful for NATO intervention and applaud the stepped-up alliance bombing campaign, a record 66 strike sorties over Tripoli and environs on Tuesday.

“We’ve always felt that relentless, continuous strikes would hasten the departure of (Qaddafi) or at least the circle around him, said rebel spokesman Jalal el-Gallal in Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital. “We’re very glad that (NATO) is carrying out the actions, and it is a matter of time.” The cracks in the alliance also showed again Wednesday.

US officials said Defense Secretary Robert Gates pointedly prodded five allied nations to share more of the burden of the NATO-led air campaign against Libya. None committed to do more.

The officials said Gates used his final NATO meeting before retirement to press Germany and Poland to join the military intervention, and Spain, Turkey and the Netherlands to contribute to strike missions against ground targets.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting of the alliance’s defense ministers.


Trouble in Misrata

Wednesday’s shelling on the outskirts of Misrata represented escalation in the more than 4-month-old uprising, which has spiraled into a civil war that has divided Libyan into zones controlled by Muammar Qaddafi and others by rebels.

Dr. Khalid Abufalgha of Misrata’s central Hikma hospital told the Associated Press that government forces tried to enter the city from three sides — the east, south and west — but rebel fighters kept them out. Qaddafi’s forces then shelled the city from afar, killing 10 and injuring 24, he said.

All the dead were fighters manning rebel checkpoints outside the city, he said. Most were killed in the village of Tawargha, southeast of Misrata.

The daily death toll is the highest in Libya’s third largest city since rebel fighters pushed government forces to the outskirts weeks ago. Misrata remains under siege, able to get food and other supplies only through its seaport.

Misrata is the only large rebel-held city in western Libya. The rebels also control a swath of eastern Libya around Benghazi and other towns in the western Nafusa mountain range.


Bombs shake Tripoli

NATO airstrikes thundered down on the Libyan capital on Wednesday, at least four during the day after five before dawn.

It was not immediately clear what was targeted. However, NATO strikes appear to be repeatedly pounding the same set of targets: the sprawling Qaddafi compound in central Tripoli, a series of government buildings and radar installations and military bases on the outskirts of the capital.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said NATO remained determined to see the end of Qaddafi’s rule. During a visit to Cairo, he reminded reporters of NATO’s decision over the weekend to extend the Libyan mission for 90 days, into late September.

“I think it’s very clear that NATO is very committed to this mission and committed to providing the kind of protection for the Libyan people that it has when it took the mission on and to focusing on a way to see Qaddafi out the door,” he said.

He added that President Barack Obama “has been very clear and remains very clear that this will not involve boots on the ground from the United States perspective.” The pummeling NATO strikes of Tuesday and Wednesday made good on alliance warnings in recent days that attacks would be increasing the scope and intensity. British and French attack helicopters struck for the first time inside Libya over the weekend.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken at NATO’s Libya operations headquarters in Naples told The Associated Press there has been “increased tempo over recent days over Tripoli” as the alliance seeks to further weaken Qaddafi’s military.

But he stressed that “Qaddafi as an individual has not been a target and won’t be a target.” Some 6,850 people, nearly all of them Libyans, have streamed across the border from Libya to Tunisia since Monday to flee the NATO raids as well as fighting between the rebels and government forces, according to the Tunisian Defense Ministry.

In Benghazi, Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez became the latest European official to visit and bolster the opposition forces.


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