x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Qaddafi attacks on rebels continue as Nato argues over air campaign

As government tanks shell rebel-held western town of Misrata, killing at least 40, Turkey and other Nato members argue over who should lead the strikes on Libya in support of UN resolution 1973.

Libyan rebels stop on the road as mortars from Qaddafi's forces are fired on them on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi.
Libyan rebels stop on the road as mortars from Qaddafi's forces are fired on them on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi.

TRIPOLI // Muammar Qaddafi’s forces attacked two west Libyan towns, killing dozens, including children, while rebels were pinned down in the east and Nato tried to resolve a heated row including Turkey, the alliance's only Muslim member, over who should lead the Western air campaign.

The British prime minister, David Cameron, said the intention was to transfer command to Nato, but France said Arab countries did not want the US-led alliance in charge of the operation.

Nato officials resumed talks in Brussels today after failing to reach agreement at fractious talks on Monday.

Some allies were now questioning whether a no-fly zone was necessary, given the damage already done by air strikes to Qaddafi’s military capabilities, a Natod iplomat said, adding: “Yesterday’s meeting became a little bit emotional.”

Underlining the differences in the anti-Qaddafi coalition, Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, said if agreement was not reached on a Nato command, Italy would resume control of the seven airbases it has made available to allied air forces.

A Nato role would require political support from all the 28 states. The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said today that the United Nations should be the umbrella for a solely humanitarian operation in Libya.

In a speech in parliament, Mr Erdogan said: “Turkey will never ever be a side pointing weapons at the Libyan people.”

The US president, Barack Obama, spoke with Mr Erdogan and they affirmed their full support for the UN resolution “and agreed that this will require a broad-based international effort, including Arab states,” the White House said  today.

With anti-Qaddafi rebels struggling to create a command structure that can capitalise on the air strikes against Libyan tanks and air defences, Western nations have still to decide who will take over command once Washington pulls back in a few days.

In the latest fighting today, Colonel Qaddafi’s tanks shelled the rebel-held western town of Misrata and casualties included four children killed when their car was hit, residents said, adding that the death toll for Monday alone had reached 40.

Residents painted a grim picture of the situation in Misrata which has been under siege by Gaddafi loyalists for weeks, with doctors operating on people with bullet and shrapnel wounds in hospital corridors and tanks in the city centre.

“The situation here is very bad. Tanks started shelling the town this morning,” a resident, called Mohammed, told Reuters by telephone from outside the city’s hospital, adding: “Snipers are taking part in the operation too. A civilian car was destroyed killing four children on board, the oldest is aged 13 years.”

In the first apparent air force casualty of the campaign, a US F-15E crashed in Libya overnight and its two crew members were rescued, the US military said. The crash was likely caused by mechanical failure and not hostile fire, it said.

Explosions and anti-aircraft rounds rattled Tripoli for a third time overnight, and Libyan state television said several sites in the capital had come under attacks by what it called the “crusader enemy”.

Two dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from US and British submarines in the past 24 hours, a defense official said early today. That brought to about 160 the number of Tomahawk strikes aimed at disabling Libyan command and control facilities, air defences and other targets since the operation started on Saturday, the official said.

Al Jazeera news network said Gaddafi forces were trying to seize the western rebel-held town of Zintan near the Tunisian border in an attack using heavy weapons. Residents had already fled the town centre to seek shelter in mountain caves.

The US defense secretary, Robert Gates, said today on a trip to Moscow that some people in Russia seem to believe what he termed Col Qaddafi’s “lies” about civilian casualties in Libya.

Libyan officials have said air strikes have killed dozens of civilians. They also say the rebels are al Qa'eda militants assisted by Western powers who are trying to steal Libya’s oil.

Mr Gates said he told his Russian counterpart Anatoly Serdyukov, who wants an immediate ceasefire to protect Libyan civilians, “that I thought the significant military fighting that has been going on should recede in the next few days.”

In Tripoli, Reuters correspondents said that some residents, emboldened by a third night of air strikes, dropped their customary praise of Col Qaddafi and said they wanted him gone.

“My children are afraid but I know it’s changing,” one man said. “This is the end. The government has no control any more.”

Officials in Libya said a naval facility in east Tripoli was hit in the overnight raids.

Libyan television was showing archive footage of Col Qaddafi being greeted by cheering crowds waving his portrait. The images were set to stirring patriotic music. Col Qaddafi himself has not been since in public since the air strikes began at the weekend.

Security analysts say it is unclear what will happen if the Libyan leader digs in, especially since Western powers have made it clear they would be unwilling to see Libya partitioned between a rebel-held east and Gaddafi-controlled west.

•  A US fighter jet crashed in Libya after an apparent equipment malfunction but both crewmembers were able to eject and were back in American hands with only minor injuries, US officials said today.

The F-15E Strike Eagle jet was conducting a mission Monday night against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s air defenses when it crashed at 2130 GMT, said Lt Cmdr. Karin Burzynski, a spokeswoman for the US Africa Command.

A spokesman for the Libyan opposition, Mohammed Ali, said the US plane went down about 25 miles (40 kilometers) outside of the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city.

Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper published a series of photographs it said was the wreckage of the plane, showing people milling around the burned-out aircraft in a Libyan field.

One of the jet’s airmen landed in a field of sheep after ejecting from the plane, then raised his hands and called out “OK, OK” to a crowd who had gathered, the Telegraph quoted witness Younis Amruni, 27, as saying.

“I hugged him and said: ‘Don’t be scared, we are your friends,”’ Mr Amruni told the newspaper, adding that people then lined up to shake the airman’s hand.

“We are so grateful to these men who are protecting the skies,” he said. “We gave him juice and then the revolutionary military people took him away.”

A Marine Corps Osprey search and rescue aircraft retrieved the main pilot, while the second crew member, a weapon systems officer who is also a pilot, was recovered by rebel forces and is now in American hands, a US. official said in Washington.