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US bolsters standing of Libyan rebels

Diplomatic move amid heavier strikes

By Diaa Hadid and Michelle Faul
Associated Press / May 25, 2011

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TRIPOLI, Libya — The Obama administration reached out yesterday to the Libyan rebels and said Moammar Khadafy would “inevitably’’ be forced from power as the US-backed NATO coalition launched a withering bombardment on the Libyan leader’s stronghold of Tripoli.

The NATO airstrikes struck in rapid succession shortly after midnight Monday, setting off more than 20 explosions in the most intensive bombardment yet of the Libyan capital. Plumes of acrid smoke rose from an area around Khadafy’s sprawling Bab al-Aziziya compound in central Tripoli.

And late yesterday, NATO hit Tripoli again, aiming at least six airstrikes at the same targets and another farther away. Smoke rose from the area near Khadafy’s compound for the second night in a row. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

A US official warned the Libyan ruler that the pace of the attacks will intensify. Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said, “I think we want to underscore to Khadafy that the foot is not going to come off the gas pedal,’’ adding, “Leaving is in his best interests and the best interest of the Libyan people.’’

The US administration bolstered the standing of the rebel National Transnational Council, calling it a “legitimate and representative and credible’’ body and extending an invitation yesterday for it to set up a representative office in Washington — though the overture stopped short of formal US recognition.

Praising the rebel leadership, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, “The opposition has organized a legitimate and credible interim council that is committed to democratic principles, their military forces are improving, and when Khadafy inevitably leaves, a new Libya stands ready to move forward,’’ she said.

The international community has stepped up both the air campaign and diplomatic efforts against the regime in a bid to break a virtual stalemate between the rebels in the east and Khadafy, who maintains a stranglehold on most of the west.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told journalists traveling with him yesterday in Herat, Afghanistan, that he hopes a solution will soon come to end the fighting in Libya.

Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said at least three people were killed and dozens wounded in the NATO strikes that targeted what he said were buildings used by volunteer units of the Libyan army.

NATO said in a statement the precision-guided strikes hit a vehicle storage facility that had been used in attacks on civilians. It was not clear if the facility was the only target hit in the barrage.

“We thought it was the day of judgment,’’ said 45-year-old Fathallah Salem, who had rushed his 75-year-old mother to the hospital after she suffered shock.

The United States launched the international air campaign on March 19 after the United Nations authorized “all necessary measures’’ to protect civilians following Khadafy’s brutal suppression of the popular uprising against his rule.

Critics argue that NATO has overstepped its mandate and is trying to bring about Khadafy’s ouster.

Jordan’s foreign minister, Nasser Judeh, announced yesterday that his country had recognized the rebels’ National Transitional Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people and would soon name a permanent envoy in Benghazi.

Several other countries, including France and Italy, have recognized the rebel administration, while the United States, European Union, and others have established a diplomatic presence in Benghazi.

Rebels now control the populated coastal strip in the country’s east and the western port city of Misurata. They also control pockets in Libya’s western Nafusa mountain range.

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