BENGHAZI, Libya — As Libya's revolutionary regime prepares for a military assault on three towns still controlled by Moammar Gadhafi loyalists, NATO aircraft backing the new authorities aren't just destroying missiles and tanks.
They're also firing leaflets — and targeting in particular the African-origin units thought to comprise much of his military force.
Mercenaries and other non-Libyan born troops may constitute the majority of the loyalist forces still in control of Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli, where a military move is likely any day, Col. Omar Ahmed Bani, the rebel military force's spokesman told McClatchy Monday. Foreign-born fighters, many of whom have become naturalized, also are thought to dominate the forces in Sirte, Gadhafi's birthplace on the Mediterranean coast, and in Sabha, deep in the Sahara desert.
One NATO leaflet directed at non-Libyans features a full color picture of a burning one dinar note, with Gadhafi's face on it. The caption reads in Arabic: "Non-Libyan fighters. This is the only money you will receive for continuing to endanger Libyan civilians!"
It adds: "You have been involved in violent acts against innocent Libyan civilians. NATO has the means and the capabilities to implement the UN mandate to protect civilians and civilian populated areas. NATO is determined to use its capabilities against any threat. Leave this country now."
Another leaflet features a picture of a helicopter gunship having blown up what appears to be an arms depot and states: "There is no place to hide. It is not too late to walk away from the fighting. If you continue to threaten civilians you will face destruction."
U.S., British, French and other allied aircraft taking part in NATO operations drop leaflets every couple of days and put out radio broadcasts in what is known in military jargon as "non-kinetic activities."
"If they don't get the message, we go to other means," said Col. Roland Lavoie, spokesman for the NATO military operation in Naples.
On Sunday, those other means included bombing a military storage facility in Sirte, multiple rocket launchers, heavy guns and missile batteries. He said a warehouse and command-and-control node were destroyed in Sabha, and over a dozen surface-to-air missiles, three anti-aircraft pieces and other heavy weapons were destroyed in small towns and oases between Bani Walid and Sabha, believed to be the escape route for Gadhafi and three of his sons.
Although NATO cannot prove causality, its leafleting may be having an impact. In Bani Walid, where negotiations for a peaceful takeover by the new regime's forces broke down over the weekend, "we don't believe there is a huge mercenary presence," and the entry of forces of the National Transitional Council need not be a bloody confrontation, Lavoie said. He said in other towns, NATO and the council had observed the departure of large numbers of non-Libyan born loyalists.
For one thing, they apparently aren't being paid any longer, he said.
In Sirte, NATO reconnaissance has observed a growing number of tents on land east of the city, set up in a manner that suggests the denizens are townspeople trying to escape a possible military assault when the council's latest ultimatum runs out Saturday.
While council officials have said repeatedly that they want to avoid further bloodshed, it's not clear how that can be achieved unless Gadhafi has fled the country, and the word gets to his loyalists. In his last recorded audio address Thursday on a Syrian television channel, the ousted leader urged fighters to carry on even if they don't hear a further message from him.
Gadhafi's whereabouts are unknown, but council sources in Niger, a poor, landlocked country to the south of Libya, reported Monday that an advance party, including a high intelligence official, had arrived in the country with a cargo of gold and cash, "and are preparing a place for the tyrant," spokesman Bani said. He predicted that Gadhafi would not stay long in Niger but flee to another country.
Gadhafi's final fire-breathing message ironically provided NATO with the rationale to carry on with its mission. Its stated goals are to destroy the military capability of loyalist forces to give orders, to menace NATO or other aircraft or to endanger the civilian population, alliance spokesman Lavoie said.
"If Libya goes up in flames, who will be able to govern it? Let it burn," Gadhafi said.
"We will fight in every valley, in every street, in every oasis and every town," Gadhafi said in the audio recording carried by Rai television. "We won't surrender again. We are not women. We will keep fighting."
With surface-to-air missiles in their control, Gadhafi loyalists are a threat to air traffic, including humanitarian aid, and other heavy arms, having already been used against civilians, threaten the noncombatant population, Lavoie said.
"He has clearly expressed his intent," Lavoie said. "He has the (military) assets to translate that intent into very nasty acts."
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