Tuesday, April 19, 2011

NATO says it cannot stop shelling of Libyan city


By KARIN LAUB and MAGGIE MICHAEL, Associated Press

TRIPOLI, Libya – NATO military commanders conceded Tuesday they are unable to stop Moammar Gadhafi's shelling of the rebel-held city of Misrata, where hospitals are overwhelmed with casualties, while Britain said it will dispatch senior military officers to advise the opposition.

Misrata, Libya's third-largest city, has been under siege for nearly two months, with rebels holding on to seaside positions in the port area. In recent days, Libyan troops have pounded the city with shells and rockets.

Rebels and troops clashed Tuesday in central Misrata, and explosions and gunfire were heard. NATO strikes only targeted radars and air defenses, said Abdel-Salam, a resident who identified himself only by his given name for fear of retaliation. Hospitals are filled with the wounded, and 120 patients need to be evacuated, the World Health Organization said.

A United Nations' humanitarian agency was cool to an idea by the European Union to deploy an armed force to escort humanitarian aid in Libya, saying it was still able to use civilian assets on the ground. The proposal also drew a warning from Gadhafi's regime that this would be tantamount to a military operation.

The fighting in Libya has been deadlocked for the past month. Gadhafi is holding on in the west, while the rebels control the east. NATO airstrikes have kept Gadhafi loyalists in check, but the rebels, poorly trained with little military experience, have not been able to score military gains, either.

As the allies seek to break the battlefield stalemate, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain will send a team of up to 20 senior military advisers to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi to help organize the haphazard opposition forces.

Hague said advisers would not supply weapons to the rebels or assist in their attacks on Gadhafi's forces but would work with British diplomats already cooperating with the National Transitional Council, the political wing of the rebel movement, which has been officially recognized by Italy, France and Qatar.

The move seems to have been spurred by the continued deadlock after two months of fighting between Gadhafi's army and rebel forces. There has also been growing international concern over Misrata, where NATO has been unable to halt heavy shelling by Gadhafi's forces with airstrikes alone.

NATO officials acknowledged that they are having trouble destroying Gadhafi's mortars and rocket launchers from the air, for fear of inadvertently harming civilians in such strikes.

"There is a limit to what can be achieved by airpower to stop fighting in a city," said NATO Brig. Gen. Mark van Uhm.

He said fighting has been intense in the city for the past 10 days, and that Gadhafi's forces have shelled Misrata indiscriminately. "The situation on the ground is fluid there, with ground being won and lost by both sides," van Uhm said at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

He said his forces have destroyed more than 40 tanks and several armored personnel carriers there.

Adm. Giampaolo Di Paola, chairman of NATO's military committee, said that even though NATO operations have done "quite significant damage" to the Libyan regime's heavy weaponry, what Gadhafi has left is "still considerable."

Asked if more NATO air power and bombing are needed, Di Paola said any "significantly additional" allied contribution would be welcome.

Given NATO's humanitarian mandate reflecting the U.N. Security Council resolution on Libya, which does not allow ground forces, "it's very difficult" to stop the regime's firepower on Misrata, he said.

"What is significant is we're preventing Gadhafi from using the full potential of his firepower. Unfortunately we're not able so far to deny him use of all his firepower," Di Paola said.

Di Paola said the alliance had "yet to succeed" in neutralizing the mortars and rocket launchers, especially inside Misrata, where it is "very hard" to destroy that firepower without inflicting civilian casualties.

The EU proposed deploying an armed force to Libya within days to ensure the delivery of humanitarian supplies, said Michael Mann, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. She made the offer of military aid to protect humanitarian groups on April 1, but so far no U.N. request has been forthcoming.

But Stephanie Bunker, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs at New York headquarters, was cool to the idea.

"We are seeing aid getting into the country, and we feel we are still able to use civilian assets to do that," Bunker said. "Should we feel military assets be necessary to get aid in, we will revisit the matter at the time."

Bunker said it is "good" that Europe is prepared to use an armed force to get humanitarian aid into Libya if necessary, but said that the U.N. humanitarian agency must agree before such action is taken. She added that U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos was likely to discuss the EU's proposal during a briefing at U.N. headquarters on Wednesday.

Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim, asked about the possibility of foreign troop escorts of aid convoys, said "if there is any deployment of any armed personnel on Libyan ground, there will be fighting, and the Libyan government will not take this as a humanitarian mission" but as a military one.

Asked whether he would rule out such deployment, he told reporters in Tripoli: "Yes, because we are doing our utmost not to resort to such things."

He said the Libyan government has repeatedly offered to help humanitarian agencies do their work.

Van Uhm, asked about the EU contingency plans, said that "until now, it has not been necessary to use armed escorts, and since the port of Misrata is still open, we don't see the need."

So far, aid has arrived by sea. Since early April, three boats have delivered some 1,500 tons of aid, including food and medical supplies. Two of the vessels also evacuated nearly 2,000 people from Misrata.

Separately, the head of the foreign affairs commission in France's lower house has proposed sending 200-300 special noncombat forces who would help designate targets for NATO planes, but French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he is "totally hostile" to the deployment of ground troops.

Rebel forces "can play this role without it being necessary to deploy troops on the ground," Juppe told diplomatic journalists. His remarks were reported on the website of the daily Le Figaro.

The leader of the rebels' transitional government, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, will meet in Paris with President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday, the president's office announced.

Over the weekend, the U.N. reached agreement with Gadhafi's government on carrying out aid operations in areas of Libya he controls. A key destination for such aid would be Misrata.

World Food Program spokeswoman Emilia Casella says the U.N. agency signed an agreement with the Libyan Red Crescent to establish a humanitarian corridor in western Libya and "we received an indication that the government did not have any objection."

Casella said WFP trucks are already bringing food to feed 50,000 people for one month. The food will be distributed by the Libyan Red Crescent in Tripoli, Zintan, Yefrin, Nalut, Mizda, Al Reiba and Zawiya.

Separately, the U.N. humanitarian chief has said she was assured the U.N. would be permitted to visit Misrata and other towns to assess the humanitarian need.

Kaim said NATO airstrikes on Monday knocked out telecommunications in the central Libyan towns of Sirte, Brega and Ras Lanouf. He alleged the strikes were meant to help the rebels advance westward, into areas controlled by Gadhafi's forces.

Michael reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Frances D'Emilio and Alessandra Rizzo in Rome and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.

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