Several NATO vessels have been deployed off the Libyan coastal city of Misrata to clear naval mines that were dropped outside the harbour last week by forces loyal to Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, in an attempt to cut off aid to the besieged the rebel-held city.
A French frigate on April 29 detected four small boats dropping three sea mines in the approach to Misrata, causing humanitarian shipping to be obstructed. Since then two of the mines have been cleared. The search for the exact location of the third mine that was observed is still under way.
“NATO mine-countermeasures ships are sweeping the approaches to Misrata harbour,” the organization said in a statement, adding that it had warned vessels of the danger posed by the Gaddafi regime’s “illegal and irresponsible” action. “The mines are small and hard to detect but can do serious damage to shipping.”
“Two were moored to the seabed and were later destroyed, but a third mine drifted free before specialised ships could arrive,” it said. “The Misrata port authority makes the decision whether to close the port and it is up to mariners to decide whether they want to approach.”
The bid to lay antiship mines “was a clear attempt to cut off traffic going in and out of the harbour, most of which was transporting aid to Libyan citizens,” NATO said.
Misrata is the only city in the West of Libya that is in the hands of rebels, but with forces loyal to Gaddafi laying siege outside the city for around two months, Misrata relies heavily on its port for the delivery of food via aid ships.
“We know the only way to keep Misrata alive is to keep the harbour open,” Hafed Makhlouf, the controller and ship pilot of the port told The Guardian. “Gaddafi realises this too, and knows that the only way to extinguish the revolution is by starving the people.”
Within 24 hours of the mines being sighted, the Royal Navy mine countermeasures vessel HMS Brocklesby arrived on the scene. Yesterday the UK Ministry of Defence announced the HMS Brocklesby had destroyed a buoyant mine one mile (1.6 km) outside the Misrata harbor. She used her sonar and Seafox mine destruction system to destroy the weapon, which contained 100 kg of explosives.
Lieutenant Commander James Byron, Commanding Officer of HMS Brocklesby, said, “I am extremely pleased we have been able to dispose of ordnance in the approaches to Misurata that is now a vital lifeline for the delivery of humanitarian aid into Libya. Our actions on behalf of NATO are directly contributing to the continued welfare of the Libyan people. In helping to keep the port of Misurata open we are ensuring the continued flow of essential medical assistance and allowing the evacuation of innocent civilians from the country.”
From Wednesday the Dutch minehuner HNLMS Haarlem began searching for mines in the waters off the Libyan coast, after a request from NATO.
Although HNLMS Haarlem is only now joining the sea-mine detection and clearing effort, it had been in the area for some time. The Dutch government decided on March 22 that the Netherlands would participate in the NATO enforcement of the UN arms embargo against Libya. The minehunter has been deployed in this operation, which is called Unified Protector, since March 28.
HNLMS Haarlem will hunt for mines by mapping the area with the aid of hull-mounted sonar. When a mine is detected, it can be detonated by the Seafox Combat, a remote-controlled mine-destruction charge.
This week the Belgian government decided to deploy a minehunter off Misrata. This is the BNS Narcis, which has been in the area since March as part of UN operations in the region. In addition, Belgium is deploying six F-16s to protect rebels against attacks by Gaddafi’s forces.
The HNLMS Haarlem, HMS Brocklesby and BNS Narcis are part of NATO’s Mine Countermeasures Group 1, which is one of two standing mine countermeasures forces maintained by NATO. Other ships in the group include the ORP Kontradmiral X Czernicki (Poland) and FGS Datteln (Germany).