NATO dismisses Libyan rebel criticism

The French foreign minister defends NATO airstrikes in Libya against mounting rebel complaints.
A Libyan rebel soldier rides with a rocket launcher on the road to Brega on Wednesday. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

The French foreign minister defended NATO airstrikes in Libya against mounting rebel complaints Wednesday, saying it has become hard to distinguish Moammar Gadhafi's forces from civilians and friendly forces.

Canadian fighter sorties

The Department of National Defence says Canadian fighter jets have carried out 14 sorties in Libya in the last week as part of the NATO mission.

It says two fighter jets destroyed ammunition depots and bunkers. Canadian tankers also helped to refuel 18 allied aircraft as well as Canadian planes. And HMCS Charlottetown monitored maritime traffic between two Libyan ports to help enforce the arms embargo.

In all, there are 570 Canadian personnel involved in the Libya mission. Most of them are based in Italy or are aboard HMCS Charlottetown.

The rebels say the alliance has been slow to launch airstrikes against government troops on the eastern front lines, which allowed the opposition to be routed from the oil port of Brega.

"NATO is not doing their job, the airstrikes are late and never on time. NATO is not helping us. Gadhafi still gets ammunition and supplies to his forces, that's why he is pushing us back," said Pte. Mohammed Abdullah, a 30-year-old former member of Gadhafi's army who has joined the rebel side. "We don't know what he would be able to do if there are no airstrikes."

He said the rebels had fought back and were now about 20 kilometres west of Brega.

NATO last week took control over the international airstrikes that began March 19 as a U.S.-led mission. The airstrikes thwarted Gadhafi's efforts to crush the rebellion in the North African nation he has ruled for more than four decades, but the rebels remain outnumbered and outgunned and have had difficulty pushing into government-held territory even with air support.

Abdel-Fattah Younis, chief of staff for the rebel military and Gadhafi's former interior minister, blamed NATO's bureaucratic procedures for eight-hour delays between the time the rebels inform NATO of enemy targets and when its attack planes arrive overhead.

Head of the rebel military forces, Abdel Fattah Younes, attends a news conference in Benghazi Tuesday, where he said NATO was too slow to act. ((Esam al-Fetori/Reuters))

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said the situation has become increasingly complicated because Gadhafi's forces are positioning themselves in heavily populated civilian areas to make targeting difficult.

Airstrikes also have destroyed most of Gadhafi's aircraft and armoured vehicles, and his troops are using pickups and less sophisticated weapons similar to those used by the rebels, Juppé said.   

He also said the standoff in the besieged western rebel-held city of Misrata was complicated by the need to prevent civilians from being mistakenly hit by the airstrikes.

"Misrata is in a situation which cannot carry on," he said. "But I want to make clear that we categorically asked that there is no collateral damage on the civilian population, so it makes the military interventions more difficult because Gadhafi's troops understood it very well and are getting closer to the civilian populations."

NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero also dismissed the criticism, saying the number of airstrikes is increasing every day. She also said Misrata remains a priority of the air campaign.

Romero said the alliance flew 137 missions on Monday, 186 on Tuesday, and planned 198 on Wednesday.

She also noted that NATO's priority is to avoid harming civilians and therefore "all operations are carried out in a very vigilant way."

"The ambition and precision of our strikes has not changed. The facts speak for themselves," Romero told The Associated Press in Brussels.

Ex-minister flees Misrata

Libya's former energy minister, Omar Fathi bin Shatwan, who also served as industry minister, told The Associated Press Wednesday that he had fled by fishing boat to Malta on Friday from the western Libyan city of Misrata.    Shatwan, who left the government in 2007, said he still was in contact with some top government figures. He explained that many feared for their families' safety if they were to flee.

"Those whose families are outside Libya will flee if they get a chance," Shatwan said in a telephone interview from Malta. "But many can't leave, and all the families of ministers are under siege."

He said he spent 40 days bunkered down at his home in the central port of Misrata before escaping from Libya, and witnessed Gadhafi's forces pounding the city with heavy artillery and relentlessly shooting civilians.

"There has been a big bombardment and there is total destruction," Shatwan said. "After this, they occupied some streets with tanks, and put snipers in the buildings."    He said Gadhafi's forces — which he said were mainly foreign mercenaries — had fired on civilians indiscriminately inside Misrata. "I think the regime is just going mad," he said.

— The Associated Press

Dutch Brig.-Gen. Mark Van Uhm said Tuesday the air campaign had prevented the Gadhafi military from using its most potent firepower on the front. He said government forces were sticking with tactics to keep tanks and other heavy military equipment away from possible airstrikes — relying on lighter and more mobile units to confront rebels.

Rebels, meanwhile, were trying to sharpen their front-line forces.

Former Libyan military officers who have joined the opposition were trying to keep untrained fighters from advancing from the eastern gateway city of Ajdabiya toward Brega. But that was causing tensions within the rebel ranks.

"We only allow the people to have training to pass," said Walid al-Obeidi, a 25-year-old from nearby Benghazi who was a private in the Libyan army before defecting and was manning a checkpoint on the western outskirts of Ajdabiya.

Trained rebels flew through the checkpoints in pickups mounted with anti-aircraft weapons. One rebel in uniform got out with a grenade hanging from his vest and a Kalashnikov rifle flung across his shoulder. Others gathered around him, chanting: "God, Libya and freedom!"

But a scuffle broke out when one of the untrained fighters tried to go through toward the front line.

"Kill me here if you don't want to let me in! Let me in, I am trained to use weapons and mortars. My friends are there, let me in," he said, refusing to give his name to reporters as some guards in camouflage uniforms prevented him from passing while others tried to calm things down.

In another incident, a pickup truck carrying a group of ragtag rebels tried to go around the gate, but a rebel army officer fired warning shots in the air, then into the truck's tires to stop it.

Untrained rebels await their fate

Those rebels who were not allowed to advance sat around, chanting anti-Gadhafi songs and clapping.

Raib bin Aruz, a 23-year-old student from the coastal town of Darna, said he hoped they would be allowed to go to the front in the afternoon, after an expected airstrike.

Saeed Imbarak, 43, a businessman, said he wanted to fight but didn't have a weapon.

"Gadhafi has weapons but we don't have enough. The Libyan people need more support from NATO. If we don't get it we expect a lot of massacres from Gadhafi. We expect him to take over all of Libya and to massacre all of us," he said.

Although NATO does not normally release information on the number of airstrikes on Gadhafi's forces, it said warplanes had bombed 14 targets on Monday. Canadian Lt.-Gen. Charles Bouchard — who commands the Libyan operation from his headquarters in Naples, Italy — estimated that 30 per cent of Gadhafi's military capacity has been destroyed.

In a step toward getting more money for weapons and other needs, a Liberian-flagged oil tanker arrived Tuesday in the eastern city of Tobruk to load up the rebels' first shipment of oil for export in nearly three weeks as part of a deal with Qatar.

The tanker can carry one million barrels of oil, less than the 1.6 million barrels Libya produced every day on average before the crisis.

With files from CBC News