West strikes Libya as Gaddafi forces choke Misrata

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 22, 2011 1:10 PM

By Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi surrounded Misrata, the only big rebel stronghold in western Libya, killing at least nine people, cutting off its water and bringing in human shields, residents said on Monday.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said a U.N. resolution authorizing military action in Libya resembled "medieval calls for crusades" and China stepped up criticism as Western forces prepared to switch from air strikes to air patrols.

The first strikes at the weekend halted the advance of Gaddafi's forces on Benghazi and targeted Libyan air defences to give Western warplanes control of the skies, but there have been no immediate rebel gains on the ground.

The White House said the United States intended to hand over the lead role in Libyan operations to others within days. British Prime Minister David Cameron said the intention was to transfer the coalition command to NATO, but France said Arab countries did not want the U.S.-led military alliance in charge.

While Western governments wrangled, bloodshed continued on the ground despite a ceasefire decreed by Gaddafi's military.

"The people of Misrata went into the streets and to the (city) center, unarmed, in an attempt to stop Gaddafi's forces entering the city," a resident told Reuters by telephone.

"When they gathered in the center the Gaddafi forces started shooting at them with artillery and guns. They committed a massacre. The hospital told us at least nine people were killed," the resident, who gave his name as Saadoun, added.

The report could not be independently verified because Libyan authorities prevented reporters from reaching Misrata.

In an appearance on Libyan television on Sunday, Gaddafi promised his enemies a "long war" after the U.N.-authorized intervention in the uprising against his 41-year rule of this oil producing north African desert state.

Officials in Tripoli said earlier that one missile in the second wave of attacks they said was intended to kill Gaddafi had destroyed a building in his fortified compound, which was heavily bombed in 1986 by the Reagan administration.

"It was a barbaric bombing," said government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim, showing pieces of shrapnel that he said came from the missile. "This contradicts American and Western (statements) ... that it is not their target to attack this place."

The military coalition enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya fired 10 to 12 missiles at targets in that country overnight, a spokesman for the U.S. Africa Command said on Monday.

Spokesman Vince Crawley said the number of coalition missile strikes was scaled back significantly from previous evenings. Early on Saturday, forces fired 110 missiles at 22 targets.

"We spent the first 24 hours establishing conditions for a no-fly zone and are now transitioning over to a patrol posture," Crawley said.

UK GENERAL DENIES TARGETING GADDAFI

The head of Britain's armed forces denied Gaddafi was a target. "Absolutely not. It's not allowed under the U.N. resolution and it's not something I want to discuss any further," General David Richards told the BBC.

A U.S. official in Washington said the effectiveness of the British strike on the Gaddafi compound remained unclear.

The second wave of air strikes also hit Gaddafi's troops around Ajdabiyah, a strategic town in the barren, scrub of eastern Libya that rebels aim to retake and where their fighters said they need more help to take the battle to the enemy.

"If we don't get more help from the West, Gaddafi's forces will eat us alive," rebel fighter Nouh Musmari told Reuters.

Many military experts expect Gaddafi to resort to a "human shield" tactic to protect tanks and artillery that have proved to be the most effective part of his armed might.

In Misrata, residents said water supplies had been cut off and government troops had encircled the city.

"The Gaddafi forces are forcing people from Zawiyah, al Mahjoub and Al Ghiran out of their houses and giving them Gaddafi's pictures and the (official Libyan) green flag to chant for Gaddafi," Hassan, a rebel spokesman, told Reuters.

"They are bringing them to Misrata so they can enter the city and control it by using the civilians as human shields because they know we are not going to shoot woman and children and old people," he said by telephone.

The United States, carrying out the air strikes in a coalition with Britain, France, Italy and Canada among others, said the campaign was working well and dismissed a ceasefire announcement by the Libyan military on Sunday evening.

The U.N.-mandated intervention to protect civilians caught up in a one-month-old revolt against Gaddafi drew criticism from Arab League chief Amr Moussa, who questioned the need for a heavy bombardment, which he said had killed many civilians.

However, Moussa said on Monday the League respected the U.N. resolution while stressing the need to protect civilians.

AIR ASSAULT ABORTED

Underlining its commitment to avoiding civilian casualties, Britain's Defense Ministry said one air force mission was called off because of civilians in the target area.

Libyan rebels welcomed the second wave of air attacks.

"The committee rejects foreign troops on the ground but we encourage the bombardment of Gaddafi's army," Ahmed El-Hasi, a spokesman for the February 17 opposition coalition, said in the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi where the uprising began.

He said the rebel leadership had coordinated with coalition powers on the air strikes, but a U.S. commander said American or coalition aircraft were not providing close air support to opposition forces.

"There is a connection between us. One, to pinpoint the position of Gaddafi's troops, and two, to pinpoint the position of our fighters so they don't get hit with the bombardments," the rebel spokesman said.

The speed with which Britain, the United States and France have found themselves effectively at war in Libya meant there was little of the public debate that preceded the 2003 Iraq war.

"The resolution is defective and flawed," said Putin, whose country did not use its power to veto the resolution at the United Nations. "It allows everything. It resembles medieval calls for crusades," Putin added.

That drew an implicit rebuke from Russian President Dimitry Medvedev, who said using the term crusades was unacceptable.

Henri Guaino, one of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's closest aides, said strikes were not aimed at ousting Gaddafi but said they were likely to last "a little while."

Not everyone was convinced. "The long-term goal, unspoken but well understood, is regime change," wrote George Friedman, head of political risk consultancy Stratfor.

The intervention in Libya is the biggest in an Arab country since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Withdrawal of Arab support would make it harder to pursue what some analysts say could in any case be an open-ended campaign with an uncertain outcome.

GADDAFI COMPOUND

On Sunday night, Libyan officials took Western reporters to Gaddafi's compound, a complex that houses his private quarters as well as military barracks and anti-aircraft batteries, to see what they said was the site of a missile attack.

A short walk from a brightly lit tent where Gaddafi receives his guests, a three-storey building stood in ruins, and a circular hole was visible on its gutted facade.

The wrecked building was close to a house in the compound which was attacked by the Reagan administration and which was never rebuilt. Outside in a symbol of defiance, a giant golden fist crumples a model of a U.S. warplane.

(Reporting by Mohammed Abbas and Angus MacSwan in Benghazi, Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy in Tripoli, Hamid Ould Ahmed and Christian Lowe in Algiers; Tom Perry in Cairo, John Irish and Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, Missy Ryan in Washington, Matt Spetalnick in Rio de Janeiro; Writing by Peter Millership; Editing by Giles Elgood)