Sarkozy tells Libyan rebels: “We will help you”

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France promised Libyan rebels on Wednesday it would intensify air strikes on Muammar Gaddafi’s forces and send military liaison officers to help them as fighting raged in the besieged city of Misrata.

Rebels said they fought pro-government troops for control of a main road in the port city of 300,000 that is the insurgents’ last stronghold in the west of the country. Eight people had been killed the previous day, mostly civilians. “NATO warplanes are flying over Misrata but I do not know if there are strikes,” a rebel spokesman calling himself Abdelsalam said by telephone. “NATO has been inefficient in Misrata. NATO has completely failed to change things on the ground.”

Evidence surfaced on Wednesday that Gaddafi’s government is dodging U.N. sanctions to import gasoline to western Libya using intermediaries who transfer the fuel between ships in Tunisia, a source with direct knowledge of the situation told Reuters. One intermediary company, Hong Kong-based Champlink, previously unknown to the oil trading community, has sought a transaction for fuel delivery into Libya, according to a fax obtained by Reuters, and European oil traders said they had been approached by other such firms.

In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has spearheaded U.N.-backed NATO intervention, pledged stronger military action at his first meeting with the leader of the opposition Libyan National Council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil. “We are indeed going to intensify the attacks and respond to this request from the national transition council,” an official in the president’s office said, quoting Sarkozy as telling Abdel Jalil: “We will help you.”

He did not say how NATO-led forces planned to break a stalemate on the ground after the United States and several European allies declined last week to join ground strikes. A French military sources said Sarkozy had won approval from NATO to carry out more air strikes and France had moved six fighter jets from Corsica to the southern Greek island of Crete, closer to Libya, for that purpose.

Italy, the former colonial power in Libya that has provided air bases for the NATO mission but says its own planes will not open fire, said it may send 10 military trainers as part of increased Western efforts to help the badly pressured rebels. Italian Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa told reporters in Rome that Gaddafi would only leave power if he were forced.

U.S. President Barack Obama still opposes sending U.S. ground troops to Libya, the White House said on Wednesday, but he supports a French and British move to dispatch military advisors to help rebels fighting Gaddafi. “The president obviously is aware of this decision and supports it, and hopes and believes it will help the opposition,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters traveling with Obama to California. “But it does not at all change the president’s policy on no ‘boots on the ground’ for American troops.”

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden insisted in an interview with the Financial Times that U.S. strike aircraft, requested by France, were not needed to achieve the alliance’s goal in Libya. “If the Lord Almighty extricated the U.S. out of NATO and dropped it on the planet of Mars so we were no longer participating, it is bizarre to suggest that NATO and the rest of the world lacks the capacity to deal with Libya — it does not,” he was quoted as saying. “Occasionally other countries lack the will, but this is not about capacity,” Biden said.

Abdel Jalil told reporters he had invited Sarkozy to pay a visit to the rebel-held eastern city of Benghazi to demonstrate France’s support for ending Gaddafi’s autocratic 41-year rule. “I think that would be extremely important for the morale of the revolution,” he said. French officials did not say if the president had accepted. Hundreds of people are believed to have been killed in Misrata, where aid groups say the humanitarian situation is worsening due to a lack of food and medical supplies.

The rebels say forces loyal to Gaddafi have been bombarding the city heavily over the last week. In signs of hardship, there are long queues for petrol and electricity has been cut so residents depend on generators. Thousands of stranded foreign migrant workers are awaiting rescue in the port area.

Libyan state television on Wednesday aired footage it said was taken earlier in the day of Gaddafi sitting on a sofa in his tent meeting a Libyan official. No other details were immediately available.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said the Libyan government’s reported use of cluster munitions and heavy weapons in Misrata may amount to a war crime under international law. The government denies it is attacking civilians in Misrata. “The number of martyrs for yesterday is eight, mostly civilians. More than 20 people were also wounded. Snipers remain the main threat to civilians and revolutionaries (rebels),” insurgent spokesman Abdelsalam told Reuters by phone.

Libyan state television said on Wednesday that NATO warplanes had hit telecommunication and broadcasting infrastructure in several cities. It also said NATO had bombed “civilian and military targets” in the area of Bir al-Ghanam, southwest of the capital Tripoli. Western officials say NATO is attacking only military targets consistent with the alliance’s U.N. mandate to impose a no-fly zone and protect civilians from Gaddafi’s forces.

France’s decision to send up to 10 military advisers to work with the rebels came a day after Britain, the other main leader of the coalition, announced a similar move. Government spokesman Francois Baroin stressed France had no intention of sending troops into Libya, where Western powers are struggling to break a deadlock in a two-month-old conflict. The French officers are expected to advise rebel leaders on how to organise their ragtag forces, now struggling against Gaddafi’s better-armed and -trained army. They will also liaise with NATO on the location of rebels and Gaddafi’s troops.

Asked whether the dispatch of liaison officers amounted to mission creep, military analyst Jean-Dominique Merchet said it was only a small team and they would not be training fighters but advising their senior officers. “It’s about putting a bit of organisation into the rebel forces. It’s the French and the British doing this, it’s clear that NATO is not very keen, nor the Americans,” he said.



Independent defence analyst Paul Beaver said the decision to send military advisers was stretching the U.N. resolution.
“But I think without it the rebels are going to be so disorganised that we will have a stalemate in what is almost a civil war now. I don’t believe it’s mission creep. People are quoting the Vietnam war but that’s quite different. These guys are not there to go and fight,” Beaver said. A British member of parliament, Graham Allen, disagreed, saying the mission had already gone beyond the humanitarian position used to justify the original intervention.