Forces loyal to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi are hiding tanks and artillery and using “shoot and scoot” tactics in Misrata, frustrating NATO air efforts to break a weeks-long siege of the rebel-held Libyan city.
Despite repeated bombing raids by the Western alliance, Gaddafi loyalists continue to lay siege to the city and its vital port — making it one of the bloodiest battlefields of Libya’s two-month-old conflict.
Rebels say pro-Gaddafi forces are concealing tanks in buildings and artillery beneath trees, firing from civilian-populated areas and near mosques. “NATO can’t strike those places,” said Safieddin, a rebel spokesman in the city, Reuters reports.
Government forces have abandoned the city centre to the rebels, but are entrenched in the built-up outskirts, sometimes firing from the open and scuttling for cover between buildings.
“There are houses there. It’s not as densely populated as downtown Misrata but still it’s the city,” said NATO’s senior military officer, Admiral Giampaolo di Paula.
“So therefore they are still continuing to use the tactics of shoot and scoot and that’s why we need to continue to systematically degrade their military firepower,” he said.
Two graphic examples came earlier this week.
After after two days of NATO bombing raids, pro-Gaddafi forces rained artillery on the port as an aid ship docked to evacuate hundreds of African migrant workers and wounded Libyan civilians. Five people were killed, rebels said, and hundreds were left stranded on the dock.
On Saturday, pro-Gaddafi artillery strikes destroyed four fuel storage tanks in Misrata, insurgents said, leaving the city facing fuel shortages.
“NATO is working, but Gaddafi’s forces are also working,” said a second rebel spokesman in Misrata, named Abdelsalam.
“PIECE BY PIECE”
“NATO has been more successful at destroying troops and military vehicles on the move than static forces,” he said.
“Every tank or rocket battery destroyed by NATO is immediately replaced. Add to this that they have been hiding tanks in the sand and inside buildings and that they fire artillery rounds from under trees.”
Rebels and residents say the government forces’ snipers and mercenaries, many of them sub-Saharan African migrants forced to fight, are holed up in buildings, firing freely.
Libyan officials deny that government forces are attacking civilians in Misrata, and say they are fighting armed gangs linked al Qaeda. Media access is limited, making it difficult to verify reports from battle zones.
Human rights groups say hundreds of people, including many civilians, have been killed in the fighting in Misrata, about 200 km (130 miles) east of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
Much of the city centre is in ruins.
Critics say NATO’s inability so far to silence the guns demonstrates the limits of waging war from the skies — amply demonstrated in the 1999 NATO bombing campaign in then-Yugoslavia to force the withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo. It took 78 days, and the credible threat of ground forces, before Slobodan Milosevic’s forces retreated.
That war saw similar games of hide-and-seek, as NATO planes struck tank after tank that turned out to be cardboard decoys.
Among the NATO allies, there is no stomach for sending ground troops to another Muslim country after the bitter experience of campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One more effective tactic that could be used is to deploy aircraft capable of flying low and striking elusive targets.
Defence analysts say the A-10 Warthog, a close air-support jet, is best suited to the job. But only the U.S. military possesses these and does not appear to have used them in Libya, preferring to let its European allies take the lead.
Helicopters are another option. When high-altitude bombing raids on targets in Kosovo failed to produce the desired results, NATO Supreme Commander General Wesley Clark persuaded the White House to send in squadrons of Apache helicopters.
European countries taking part in the NATO operation have attack helicopters of their own, and ships from which they can take off. But helicopters are vulnerable to shoulder-fired missiles and other anti-aircraft projectiles.
Yet for all the limitations on what it can do, NATO says it is succeeding, given the fact Misrata has not fallen. “The city is not strangled, the harbour is open, although sometimes you get shelling and you need to close it,” said Admiral di Paula.
“We are making progress — I think this is an undeniable fact, but … it’s difficult to neutralise Gaddafi’s forces because they are still in an urban environment.
“Therefore there is still the same difficulty to hit them. But notwithstanding that, we are doing it, systematically, every day, every night, piece by piece.”