Libya campaign enters new month, with little change

McClatchy NewspapersApril 19, 2011 

BENGHAZI, Libya — The NATO-led bombing campaign that Western leaders hope will topple Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi marked its first month Tuesday, still seemingly no closer to its goal.

NATO announced that on Monday it had made 53 bombing runs on Gadhafi targets, striking, among other things, eight ammunition bunkers and a headquarters building near Tripoli, four tanks near Misrata, and an unidentified building near the key oil terminal town of Brega.

But conditions in the country remained largely unchanged. Amnesty International issued an urgent plea for the international community to take more aggressive action to provide humanitarian aide to Misrata. Supplies of food and medicine were dwindling, the group said, and thousands of foreign workers remain trapped at the city's port "desperate to leave." Fighting is making evacuation of the wounded impossible, the group said.

"Where is the international community and why is it not doing anything to provide the protection that it promised, and which they crave, to the vulnerable and increasingly desperate inhabitants of Misrata?" Amnesty's representative in Misrata, Donatella Rovera, wrote in a blog post.

The fighting in eastern Libya has devolved into a desultory tug-of-war along the pivotal coastal strip, with the rebels literally digging in for what they expect will be a long standoff against Gadhafi forces at Ajdabiya, 100 miles south of Benghazi, the rebel capital. Bulldozers have created a berm of sand at the town's western edge to help rebels mount a defense against any pro-Gadhafi foray. There have been no NATO airstrikes near the rebel positions since Sunday, rebels said.

"Ajdabiya is the zero point. We will start operations from there in a couple of weeks," a rebel military spokesman, Col. Ahmed Bani, said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the BBC reported that British and French officials had decided to send a team of about 20 military officers to Benghazi — 10 from each country — to provide logistics and intelligence training to the beleaguered rebels, whose inexperience under fire sends them fleeing toward the rear at the first sound of fire.

The BBC said that the British foreign secretary, William Hague, said the move wouldn't violate the U.N. resolution on Libya, which forbids foreign occupation forces.

But the introduction of advisers on the ground sounds like the kind of "mission creep" that U.S. officials feared when they first opposed taking military action. Training a few thousands rebel troops in the basics of warfare will take months, not weeks, Pentagon officials say, and the British announcement is a concession that air power alone is not likely to end this war.

The U.S., after leading the initial air campaign, has taken a backseat in the operation, and President Barack Obama pledged during a meeting with members of Congress on March 18, the day before the air campaign began, that no U.S. troops would enter Libya.

"We are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal, specifically the protection of civilians in Libya," Obama said then.

That policy remains in place, and U.S. aircraft that would be more effective in flying close air support missions for the rebels have remained on the ground for the most part since NATO assumed the lead role three weeks ago.

The optimism that rebels in the east would soon march along the coastal highway through Gadhafi strongholds to relieve the fighters in Misrata has disappeared.

The rebel force can't even agree on who runs its military operations in eastern Libya, with two rival generals fighting for control while opposition political leaders struggle to avoid picking sides.

Bani, the rebel military spokesman, said the rebels now plan to dig in at Ajdabiya and await help — either from NATO airstrikes or newly trained fighters from Benghazi — under the advice of the rebels' new field commander, Khalifa Hifter, who recently returned to Libya after 24 years of exile in the U.S., Bani said.

But Hifter's authority remains uncertain as he jockeys for influence with his rival, chief of staff Abdelfatah Younis. His influence on the ground as field commander has yet to be seen.

Salah Awad Ali, a gray-haired former army officer who commands a small rebel unit based in Ajdabiya, said that he was told on Monday not to take his fighters toward the key oil port of Brega, 50 miles to the west, but that he didn't know where the order came from.

It isn't clear where the military backup will come from, either. The pace of NATO airstrikes in the east has dwindled in recent days, with rebels reporting no airstrikes at least since Sunday. Some fighters reasoned that sandstorms on Monday reduced visibility, while others theorized that Gadhafi fighters had pulled back to Brega, leaving NATO warplanes with few obvious targets.

On Tuesday, Ali said, small rebel scout teams ventured about halfway down the road to Brega, fired rockets toward what they thought were Gadhafi positions but received no fire in return. They eventually returned to Ajdabiya.

"We fired, but nothing came back. We didn't have any specific targets," Ali said.

But after weeks of assailing NATO for launching few or inaccurate airstrikes — two friendly fire strikes on rebel positions killed at least 18 people two weeks ago — the rebels have muted their criticism a bit.

"From my side and the army side, we are so satisfied with NATO, and we thank them and appreciate them," Bani said.

(Bengali reported from Benghazi. Youssef reported from Cairo.)

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For more news from the Middle East, visit McClatchy's Middle East page.

McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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