Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi have fired a missile at an Italian warship sailing off the Libyan coast near the city of Zlitan, missing the vessel by a couple of kilometres.
The incident occurred yesterday morning and was confirmed by Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim.
According to the Italian defence ministry and NATO, the missile was fired at the Italian frigate Bersagliere, which was around 19 kilometres offshore from Zlitan. The missile landed about two kilometres away.
“The ship was not harmed and continued on its mission,” NATO said in a statement. “NATO ships go in harm’s way to seek those military targets which continue to threaten the people of Libya.”
Italian defence minister Ignazio La Russa had said, “It could be a Libyan missile or an anti-aircraft missile that fell into the sea. There is no reason to worry.” Nevertheless, the Bersagliere had “moved further off to be on the safe side.”
Meanwhile, in Tripoli, Ibrahim told journalists that the missile had been launched by troops that remain loyal to Gaddafi. “We have amazing capabilities that we have not felt that we need to use yet,” Ibrahim said. “Our army is still very strong. We haven’t used our real military power.”
He discounted allied claims that pro-Gaddafi forces had been reduced to 20% of their capabilities, CNN reports. “For God’s sake, if we are down here to 20%, what am I doing here?” he said.
There has been an upsurge in fighting around Zlitan, with government forces claiming victory in the area and rebels saying they fought off an attack on positions around the town.
Tuesday’s assault by forces loyal to Gaddafi led to fierce street battles that killed at least eight rebels, exposing the fragility of gains by rebels who are fighting on several fronts but are frequently out-gunned and out-manoeuvred.
Five months into their uprising, despite winning increasing international support and enjoying the backing of NATO bombing raids on pro-Gaddafi forces, the eastern-based rebels have failed to make a breakthrough in ending Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.
As diplomacy appears to have ground to a halt, rebel pushes around Zlitan and the oil town of Brega, both to the east of Tripoli, and the Western Mountains, near the border with Tunisia, have been overshadowed by reports of divisions and the slaying of their top military chief in shadowy circumstances.
In recent days, rebels have inched toward Zlitan, a town 160 km (100 miles) east of Tripoli and near rebel-held Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, pushing the frontline to the eastern outskirts. Some 34 rebels have been killed in the advance.
Libya’s conflict has ground on into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, despite the increasing diplomatic, financial and military backing of the rebels, who are based in the eastern city of Benghazi and have seized about half the country.
Various African and U.N.-led peace initiatives have been launched but delivered no concrete results and Gaddafi’s camp said this week that the conflict would continue, even if bombing raids were ended, until the rebels were crushed.