Mortars pound Misrata; West talks of tougher action


Libyan government troops pounded the besieged rebel-held city of Misrata overnight, undeterred by Western threats to step up military action against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces. Among the dead in Misrata were British photojournalist Tim Hetherington (left), co-director of Oscar-nominated war documentary “Restrepo,” and American photographer Chris Hondros (right), killed when a group they were in came under fire.

Mortar fire killed at least three rebel fighters and wounded 17 in the latest attacks on Tripoli Street, rebel spokesmen said. Libya’s third largest city, the only rebel stronghold in the west of the country, has been under a punishing siege by forces loyal to Gaddafi for seven weeks. Hundreds of people are reported to have died.

Among the casualties overnight was a Ukrainian doctor. Rebels say Gaddafi’s forces, including snipers, are deliberately attacking civilians, an accusation denied by Tripoli. Libyan state television said early Thursday NATO forces had struck the Khallat al-Farjan area of the capital Tripoli, killing seven people and wounding 18 others. The report could not immediately be independently verified.

Canadian Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, commander of NATO’s Libya operations, said Wednesday civilians should keep away from Gaddafi’s forces to avoid being hurt by NATO air attacks on government troops. “Civilians can assist NATO by distancing themselves from Gaddafi regime forces and equipment whenever possible. Doing this will allow NATO to strike those forces and equipment with greater success,” he said in a statement.

Rebel fighters voiced frustration with an international military operation they see as too cautious.
“NATO has been inefficient in Misrata. NATO has completely failed to change things on the ground,” rebel spokesman Abdelsalam said. France said it would send up to 10 military advisers to Libya. Britain plans to dispatch up to a dozen officers to help rebels improve organisation and communications. Neither country plans to arm or train insurgents to fight.

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 overcome the stalemate on the ground after the United States and several European allies declined last week to join ground strikes. Abdel Jalil told reporters he had invited Sarkozy to pay a visit to the eastern rebel powerbase of Benghazi to “boost the morale of the revolution.” French officials did not say whether Sarkozy had accepted.

Khalid Abufalgha, a doctor on the Misrata medical committee, said a total of 365 people had been killed, including at least 85 civilians, and 4,000 people wounded in the Mediterranean city since it came under government siege about seven weeks ago. Rebels said they were battling for control of a major road in the port of 300,000 people, which is the insurgents’ last bastion in the west of the country, where civil war erupted in February over demands for an end to Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.

Civilians say they live in constant fear of snipers. “Mohammed and his friends were in our garage. They had gone outside to play when he had to pause to put his shoe on. In that instant the bullet hit his head,” said Zeinab, mother of a 10-year-old boy who lay in a hospital bed with a bullet wound. Misrata is running out of food and medical supplies. 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.

Rebel spokesman Abdulrahman, reached by telephone from the western town of Zintan, said there was also fighting near Libya’s Western border with Tunisia. “Clashes are currently occurring in Nalut and have been going on since Monday. The Gaddafi forces are using Grad missiles and mortar rounds to attack Nalut. It’s not an even battle. The rebels are not well-armed.”

Evidence surfaced 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.