NATO boosts airstrikes on military targets in Libya
African states urged to ignore Khadafy warrant
TRIPOLI, Libya - NATO said yesterday that it has begun increasing its airstrikes on military targets in the western part of Libya, where rebel forces claim a string of advances through territory still largely under Moammar Khadafy’s control.
In a boost for Khadafy, meanwhile, the African Union called on member states to disregard an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court against the Libyan leader. That could enable Khadafy to travel freely on the continent.
The warrant was issued for Khadafy’s alleged role in a brutal crackdown on antigovernment protesters this year.
Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim praised the African Union’s decision, saying “we salute their courage.’’ He said Khadafy had no immediate plans to leave the country, however.
“We are at war with the mightiest armies in the world, and the safety of the leader is a must for us. So we need to keep him safe to lead us through this difficult time,’’ he said.
Libya also welcomed a road map for dialogue drafted by the African Union that outlines plans for negotiations between the government and rebels, Moussa said. He confirmed that Khadafy would not be involved in the proposed talks and expressed hope that a cease-fire could be reached “in the next few days, or weeks at most.’’
Khadafy’s regime is determined to stand firm against opposition fighters moving from southern and eastern fronts toward the capital, Tripoli. The rebels have largely solidified control over the eastern third of Libya but have struggled to push out of pockets they hold in the west.
NATO’s comments about its latest airstrikes suggest the alliance is hoping to tip the balance further in the rebels’ favor despite threats by Khadafy to carry out attacks in Europe unless the airstrikes stop.
The United States and Spain said yesterday that they will not let Khadafy’s threats of retaliatory attacks deter their mission to protect Libyan civilians and force him to leave power.
“Instead of issuing threats, he should be putting the well-being and interests of his own people first,“ Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. “He should step down from power.’’
Speaking in Spain on the last leg of a three-nation European tour, Clinton brushed aside Khadafy’s brazen warning. Khadafy told a large progovernment rally in Tripoli that “homes, offices, and families’’ would become legitimate military targets.
The coalition said it has destroyed more than 50 military targets in the west last week. It says it is targeting government forces in cities and along “major lines of communication.’’
“We are engaging all military assets that are being used to indiscriminately target the civilian population throughout Libya,’’ Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, commander of NATO’s Libya mission, said in the statement.
NATO said more than 1.8 million civilians are at risk from a buildup of forces loyal to Khadafy in western cities along the coast and in the Nafusa mountain range southwest of the capital.
Rebels control several Nafusa mountain towns and the vital port city of Misrata. The rest of western Libya, including the heavily protected capital Tripoli, remain under Khadafy’s control.
Colonel Ahmed Bani, a rebel spokesman, said yesterday that rebel fighters have pulled back in some parts of the west, in what he described as a “strategic retreat,’’ but said they would go on the offensive again in the coming days. Asked about the NATO attacks in the area, he said they have been helpful to the rebels, but did not elaborate.
Bani told a news conference in the rebel-controlled eastern city of Benghazi that the rebels are not sending reinforcements to the west and that the fighters there don’t need more weapons.
A coalition including France, Britain, and the United States began striking Khadafy’s forces under a United Nations resolution to protect civilians on March 19, giving the rebels air support. NATO assumed control of the air campaign over Libya on March 31. It is joined by a number of Arab allies.
In recent days, NATO said it has repeatedly hit Tripoli and Gharyan, a city at the eastern gateway to the Nafusa mountains and on a major road to the capital. Gharyan is about 50 miles south of Tripoli.
It also claims to have struck a network of tunnels storing military equipment about 30 miles southeast of the capital.
NATO said in a separate statement it struck two armed vehicles Friday near Bir al-Ghanam, a town rebels from the mountains have been trying to take along a road leading toward the capital.
It is not clear whether Khadafy can make good on the threats to attack Europe.