Libyan rebel leader slams NATO over slow response

McClatchy NewspapersApril 5, 2011 

BENGHAZI, Libya — As Col. Moammar Gadhafi's forces tightened their grip on the oil town of Brega, the commander of Libya's rebel army slammed NATO Tuesday for failing to carry out airstrikes and blocking a shipment of weapons and relief supplies that was headed to a city where fighting has raged for weeks.

Gen. Abdelfatah Younis' comments underscored growing dissatisfaction among Libyan rebels with NATO, which took over the military campaign against Gadhafi from the U.S. this week but has watched the rebels continue to lose ground to government forces in a tug-of-war along Libya's Mediterranean coastline.

In the highest level contact between the U.S. and the rebels, White House envoy Chris Stevens met with opposition leaders Tuesday in Benghazi, the rebel capital in eastern Libya. Opposition leaders confirmed the meeting but refused to offer details. The White House offered no comment.

In Washington, Younis' criticism was no surprise to some rebel supporters.

"I am really perplexed by this strategy that military action will be limited to preventing humanitarian disasters and regime change will be accomplished by political maneuvering," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "I think those are mixed signs and confusing policy, and we're seeing the results of that policy play out on the ground."

Rebel forces suffered more setbacks on Tuesday, with rebels reporting they'd been pushed nearly 25 miles from Brega toward the strategic city of Ajdabiya, but Younis was particularly critical of NATO's response in Misrata, the only western city still in rebel hands after a weeks-long siege by Gadhafi's forces.

On Tuesday morning, the Turkish navy, acting under NATO command, refused to allow a private ship carrying weapons, ammunition and medical supplies from the rebel capital of Benghazi to land at Misrata. The Turkish forces inspected the ship, which had been chartered by private citizens in Benghazi, then, citing a United Nations-imposed arms embargo on Libya, the captain to surrender the arms or turn back, according to Gian Micalessin, an Italian journalist who was aboard.

"Whoever stops any support to Misrata is . . . assisting the criminal regime that is carrying out genocide in Misrata," Younis said.

"They should have been assisted to reach Misrata even if there were weapons, so people can defend their livelihoods."

Small demonstrations in Benghazi have urged NATO to do more to protect civilians, since the U.S. military stopped conducting airstrikes Monday night and shifted to a support role in the two-week-old military campaign. The Pentagon said that some U.S. attack planes, such as A-10 Warthogs and Harrier jets, "remain available in 'standby mode' and could be made available after a specific request from NATO leadership."

Younis said that he and rebel commanders have provided NATO with the coordinates of government targets but complained that NATO forces take too long — sometimes as long as eight hours — to launch strikes. He also said that NATO forces weren't allowing the rebels to use their own limited air power, including a few helicopters and fighter jets.

"It is obviously not acceptable," Younis said. "NATO has to be more decisive and carry out its function properly, or I am forced to take the matter to the Security Council to stop the obliteration of our people."

The Obama administration hasn't granted official recognition to the rebels. The Associated Press, citing an unidentified U.S. official in Washington, said that Stevens was trying to get a better idea of who the rebels are, what they want and what their capabilities are.

Earlier Tuesday, the head of NATO's allied operations, Brig. Gen. Mark Van Uhm, said that the NATO campaign had destroyed 30 percent of Gadhafi's military capacity. Speaking in Brussels, Van Uhm also said that Misrata had become the allies' "number one priority" and that Gadhafi's forces were hiding tanks and using human shields to stop NATO fighter jets from identifying targets.

Libyan opposition leaders say that the government has cut off water and electricity to Misrata and contaminated the drinking water.

Amid reports of a rift in the rebel army, Younis, who until February served as Gadhafi's interior minister, said that he, not Khalifa Hifter, is commanding opposition forces. Hifter, a former senior commander in Gadhafi's military who lived until recently in northern Virginia, is a "colleague" but doesn't have a formal position in the rebel army, Younis said.

"There is always a place for him. He is most welcome at any time," Younis said.

Underscoring the suspicion with which some eastern Libyans view Younis, however, his comments were interrupted when a middle-aged man burst into the hotel meeting room where reporters had gathered for a news conference and accused the commander of harming civilians during a 2006 security crackdown in Benghazi.

"Tell them what you have done to those guys!" the man shouted before being hauled away.

Younis, who'd been a Gadhafi associate since before the 1969 revolution that brought Gadhafi to power and was commander of special forces in eastern Libya, denied any wrongdoing. "The forces under my command did not harm any civilians of Benghazi at that event," he said.

(James Rosen contributed to this article from Washington.)

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