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NATO unleashes new Libya airstrikes

Rebels seek more firepower to gain against Khadafy

By Sebastian Abbot and Maggie Michael
Associated Press / April 14, 2011

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AJDABIYA, Libya — NATO launched new airstrikes yesterday on targets held by Moammar Khadafy as rebel leaders urged a stronger air campaign that will allow them to advance on Khadafy’s territory.

Khadafy’s government, meanwhile, denounced proposals by rebel leaders that they be given some of the regime’s assets that have been frozen as part of international sanctions.

“That is financial piracy,’’ Finance Minister Abdulhafid Zlitni said of such a transfer. In all, about $120 billion in Libyan assets have been frozen, he told a news conference.

Detailing yesterday’s bombings, a NATO official confirmed a strike on at least one ammunition bunker outside Tripoli, the Libyan capital.

He asked that his name not be used because the military alliance was not yet releasing the information publicly.

Libya’s official JANA news agency reported airstrikes yesterday in three other places: Misurata, Libya’s third-largest city; Surt, a Khadafy stronghold and home to the Libyan leader’s tribe; and Aziziya, about 22 miles south of Tripoli.

JANA said the strike in Misurata was in an area populated with residents.

But Mohammed Abdullah, a Misurata activist and a professor, said residents had mostly evacuated that part of the city several weeks ago after Khadafy troops stormed it.

“Khadafy troops are misleading the NATO,’’ he said. “The Khadafy forces turn the shops into weapon caches and then claim that the areas are residential.’’

Libyan rebels have been pleading for more NATO airstrikes as top Western and Arab envoys gather in Qatar’s capital to discuss ways to end the Libyan crisis.

Mohamed Ismail Tajouri, 54, a businessman who joined the rebels in their stronghold of Benghazi, said having a rebel delegation attend the Qatar meeting amounts to key international recognition.

“We are proud of this,’’ he said. “This political development is really good for the rebels but the Khadafy regime is not normal. He is a bloody creature. He won’t leave until he spills some blood.”

At yesterday’s meeting, Mohammed Shammam, a spokesman for Libyan rebels, urged the US military to reassert a stronger role in the NATO-led air campaign or risk more civilian casualties in the fighting between Khadafy and forces seeking to end his four-decade rule.

Shammam’s appeal appeared to set the urgent tone for the rebels’ meetings with the UN’s secretary general and other top envoys.

In Washington, Pentagon officials disclosed that American fighter jets have continued airstrikes in Libya even after the United States turned over the mission to NATO last week. The revelation that Americans have flown 35 percent of all air missions over the past 10 days came amid complaints from allies that the US military should be doing more.

While peace efforts remain the top objective, there also appears to be a shift toward trying to boost the rebels’ firepower to protect their territory from government offensives.

One proposal by Italy — Libya’s former colonial ruler — calls for allies to provide defensive weapons.

In recent days, fighting on the eastern side of the country has been restricted to the occasional barrage of rockets, in contrast to the rapid advances and retreats that characterized much of the combat there in past weeks.

Khadafy’s forces, however, continued to shell Misurata this week. International groups are warning of a dire humanitarian crisis in the city, the only one in western Libya still partially in the hands of rebels.

In the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, a rebel spokesman, said representatives are in talks over arms deals with the countries that have recognized the movement’s National Transitional Council — France, Italy, and Qatar — as well as with other countries.

“I think there will be no problem receiving weapons,’’ Ghoga said. “We believe that the solution with Colonel Khadafy’s regime will only come through force. There will not be a political solution unless it is imposed on this regime by the international community.’’

Khaled Kaim, Libya’s deputy foreign minister, alleged yesterday that Lebanese militants have joined the ranks of the rebels but had no evidence. Kaim claimed that several members of the Lebanese group Hezbollah are fighting alongside the rebels in Misurata and that members of another militant group, Amal, are training rebel fighters in Benghazi.

At the Doha meeting, delegates vowed to work toward setting up a financial mechanism to help the rebels’ transitional government pay salaries and cover other day-to-day needs. Envoys said the system could draw on oil revenues from rebel-held areas and frozen Libyan assets previously under Khadafy’s control.

Zlitni, the Libyan finance minister, warned that the government would go to court to block any possible transfer of frozen assets to the rebels. Those holding the assets have no right to transfer them, “unless they have a clear mandate from the UN Security Council,’’ Zlitni said. “This is theft.’’

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