Libya war reaching stalemate, Washington says

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Libya’s civil war is reaching stalemate, a senior US general said and rebels fighting to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi said a NATO air strike killed five of their fighters.

Wounded rebels being brought to a hospital in Ajdabiyah in rebel-held east Libya said they were hit by a NATO strike on their trucks and tanks outside the contested port of Brega.

NATO said it was investigating an attack by its aircraft on a tank column in the area on Thursday.

General Carter Ham, head of US Africa command, told a Senate hearing Washington should not provide arms to the rebels without a better idea of who they were, Reuters reports.

Asked if there was an emerging stalemate, he replied: “I would agree with that at present, on the ground.” Medical workers carried blood-soaked uniforms from hospital rooms in Ajdabiyah, gateway to the insurgent stronghold of Benghazi in the east, after wounded fighters were ferried back from Brega.
“It was a NATO air strike on us. We were near our vehicles near Brega,” wounded fighter Younes Jumaa said from a stretcher at the hospital.

Nurse Mohamed Ali said at least five rebels were dead. Rebel fighters were weeping on their knees in the corridor.
“NATO are liars. They are siding with Gaddafi,” said Salem Mislat, one of the rebels.

It was the second time in less than a week that rebels had blamed NATO for bombing their comrades by mistake. Thirteen were killed in an air strike not far from the same spot on Saturday.

A doctor who had been at the front among rebel ambulance crews said they were hit by a government rocket attack immediately after the air strike. One medical worker was killed. The rebels have been fighting to seize control of Brega from forces loyal to Gaddafi for a week in a see-saw battle along the Mediterranean coast.

Rebel spokesmen told Reuters Gaddafi forces killed five people and wounded 25 in an artillery bombardment of the isolated and besieged western city of Misrata on Wednesday.

The barrage forced the temporary closure of Misrata’s port, a vital lifeline for supplies to besieged civilians, the spokesmen said. They added that NATO air strikes hit pro-Gaddafi positions around Misrata.

Misrata, Libya’s third city, rose up with other towns against Gaddafi in mid-February and has been under siege for weeks, after a violent crackdown put an end to most protests elsewhere in the west of the country.

A rebel spokesman told Reuters people in Misrata were crammed five families to a house in the few safe districts to escape a rain of mortar shells from Gaddafi forces which have subjected them to weeks of sniper and artillery fire.

OIL PRODUCTION PLUNGES

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern about deteriorating conditions for civilians in Misrata and Zintan in the west, and Brega in the east.

He said the situation in Misrata was particularly grave and called for an end to attacks on civilians.

The civil war has cut Libyan oil output by 80 percent, a senior government official said on Thursday, as rebels and Gaddafi’s forces traded charges over who had attacked oil fields vital to both sides.

Rebels say government attacks on three different installations in the east have halted production of the oil they need to finance the eight-week-old uprising against Gaddafi.

The government’s Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim told reporters the British air force had damaged an oil pipeline in a strike against the Sarir oilfield which killed three guards.

NATO denied the alliance carried out any air strikes in the Sarir area and said forces loyal to Gaddafi were responsible for an attack which started a fire in the oilfield. It said Gaddafi was trying to disrupt oil supplies to the rebel-held port of Tobruk.

Shokri Ghanem, chairman of the government National Oil Corporation, told Reuters on Thursday the country’s production had fallen to 250,000 to 300,000 barrels per day compared with 1.6 million before the uprising.

He called a reported shipment of Libyan oil by the rebels “very sad” and said it would only contribute to tension and divide the country.

The Liberian-registered tanker Equator sailed from the port of Marsa el-Hariga, near Tobruk, on Wednesday, apparently with the first cargo of crude sold by rebels since their uprising began in February. Oil traders said the cargo, vital to fund the uprising, was headed for China.

WESTERN BOUNDARY

There was confusion on Thursday about the fighting near Brega, but one rebel fighter said government rockets had hit the town’s western boundary.

Al Jazeera television said Gaddafi’s forces were advancing on the town from the coast and the desert and rebels were trying to reinforce its western approaches. This could not immediately be confirmed.

Other insurgents said a 130-strong rebel force was about 25 km (15 miles) east of Brega, which has been fought over for a week with neither side able to make major gains.

A senior U.S. Treasury official said Washington had frozen more than $34 billion of Libyan assets as part of sanctions against Gaddafi and his top officials. European governments had also frozen a substantial amount he said.

Gaddafi appealed for a halt in the air campaign in a rambling three-page letter to U.S. President Barack Obama bluntly dismissed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday.
“Mr. Gaddafi knows what he must do,” Clinton told a news conference with Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, reiterating calls for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of his forces from cities they have stormed and his departure from Libya.

Civil war in the vast North African desert oil producer ignited in February when Gaddafi tried to crush pro-democracy rallies against his 41-year-old rule inspired by uprisings that have toppled or endangered other rulers across the Arab world.



A senior aid worker said on Thursday desperate refugees from North Africa had dragged each other under water and drowned when an overloaded migrant boat sank off Sicily. Up to 250 people wre still missing from the capsized boat, which was said to have left Libya on Monday.