Wednesday, April 13, 2011

NATO airstrikes hit Gadhafi targets


AJDABIYA, Libya – NATO launched new airstrikes Wednesday on targets held by Moammar Gadhafi as rebel leaders urged a stronger air campaign that will allow them to advance on Gadhafi's territory.

Gadhafi'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 Wednesday's bombings, a NATO official confirmed a strike on at least one ammunition bunker outside the Libyan capital, Tripoli. 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 Wednesday in three other places: Misrata, Libya's third-largest city; Sirte, a Gadhafi stronghold and home to the Libyan leader's tribe; and Aziziyah, about 22 miles (35 kilometers) south of Tripoli. Jana said the strike in Misrata was in an area "populated with residents."

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

"Gadhafi troops are misleading the NATO," he said. "The Gadhafi 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, a 54-year-old 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 told The Associated Press. "This political development is really good for the rebels but the Gadhafi regime is not normal. He is a bloody creature, he won't leave until he spills some blood."

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

Shammam's appeal appeared to set the urgent tone for the rebels' meetings with the U.N.'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 U.S. 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 noted by Italy — Libya's former colonial ruler — calls for allies providing defensive weapons.

The meeting comes as 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.

Gadhafi's forces, however, continued to shell the besieged city of Misrata in recent days. International groups are warning of a dire humanitarian crisis in Misrata, the only city in western Libya still partially in the hands of rebels.

In the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, rebel spokesman Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga said representatives are in negotiations 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.

He added: "We believe that the solution with Col. Gadhafi'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."

Libya's deputy foreign minister, Khaled Kaim, alleged Wednesday that Lebanese militants have joined the ranks of the rebels, but did not provide evidence. Kaim claimed that several members of the Lebanese group Hezbollah are fighting alongside the rebels in Misrata, 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 Gadhafi's control.

The Libyan finance minister, Zlitni, 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 U.N. Security Council," Zlitni said. "This is theft."

The minister said the country will be able to manage econonomically despite the sanctions.

He said while about $120 billion in Libyan assets have been frozen, the country has billions of dollars in contingency funds at its disposal. He did not specify the size of Libya's reserves, but added that "those contingency reserves are going to last for quite some time."

Still, Zlitni acknowledged that the sanctions "hurt the financial and economic situation of the majority of Libyans which the U.N. did not intend."

Zlitni said he has lowered the price of fuel by 25 percent and increased salaries by 50 percent to ease the economic pressure on ordinary Libyans.

He said Libya currently produces only about 65 percent of its daily fuel requirements because of the sanctions. As a result of the shortage, long lines of dozens of cars are seen waiting at gas stations across the Gadhafi-controlled areas.

Michael reported from Cairo. Additional reporting by Karin Laub in Tripoli.

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