Sunday, April 10, 2011

NATO strikes Libyan tanks near key cities

NATO strikes Libyan tanks near key cities

Taking position: A rebel fighter on the turret of a destroyed tank near the eastern part of Ajdabiya.

NATO warplanes have destroyed 11 regime tanks on the road to the eastern Libyan town of Ajdabiya and another 14 tanks near Misrata in the west.

Earlier Libyan leader Moamar Gaddafi's artillery had heavily bombarded Ajdabiya, and his forces had forced their way inside, in their most determined assault on the strategic town for at least a week.

Rebels cowered in alleyways from sustained artillery, rocket and small-arms fire and appeared to be losing control of the town.

"The situation in Ajdabiya, and Misrata in particular, is desperate for those Libyans who are being brutally shelled by the regime," said Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, the NATO operation's commander.

"To help protect these civilians we continue to strike these forces hard, with 11 tanks destroyed today as they approached Ajdabiya, and 14 tanks destroyed earlier this morning in the outskirts of Misrata."

Ajdabiya is the gateway to the rebels' stronghold of Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, and has been the launch point for insurgents during a week-long fight for the oil port of Brega further west.

Rebels said Mr Gaddafi's forces had killed at least four rebel fighters in the second day of fighting for Ajdabiya.

"I saw the four this morning," said a rebel, Mohammed Saad, at a checkpoint on the eastern edge of the town.

"Their throats were slit and they were all shot through the chest and dumped on the road. Their car was also riddled with bullets."

Insurgent Hassan Bosayna said eight Gaddafi fighters and four rebels were killed in fighting on Saturday, with one of the rebels shot in the forehead by a sniper.

Another rebel, Muftah, said: "There are Gaddafi forces inside Ajdabiyah in sand-coloured Land Cruisers and we know there are Gaddafi snipers in civilian clothing in the city as well."

A reporter near Ajdabiya's eastern gate heard shooting and artillery fire and saw plumes of black smoke, suggesting pro-Gaddafi forces had pushed towards the centre.

The mostly untrained rebels have tried to reorganise and re-equip but were unable to hold ground last week in the fight for Brega.

Misrata besieged

The NATO official said another 14 regime tanks were destroyed near Misrata, the rebels' last major bastion in the west, besieged by Moamar Gaddafi's forces for more than a month.

The alliance had already taken out 15 tanks near Misrata on Friday and Saturday, bringing to 29 the total number of tanks destroyed around Libya's third largest city in the past three days.

Libyan rebels have criticised NATO in recent days, accusing the alliance of failing to protect the population in Misrata. But NATO says it is picking up the pace.

Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, head of Operation Unified Protector, said on Saturday that warplanes had destroyed ammunition stockpiles and several armoured vehicles in the previous 24 hours.

NATO aircraft struck ammunition stockpiles east of Tripoli that were being used to resupply regime forces that were shelling innocent civilians in Misrata, the alliance said.

"In addition to hitting their supplies, our aircraft successfully destroyed a significant percentage of the Libyan government's armoured forces," Lieutenant General Bouchard said in a statement from his headquarters in Naples, Italy.

"Some of these armoured forces also were involved in the indiscriminate shelling of Misrata," he added.

Mr Gaddafi's forces appear bent on seizing Misrata and crucially its port, which some analysts say is vital if Mr Gaddafi is to survive, because it supplies the capital Tripoli.

Rebel spokesman Mustafa Abdulrahman said by telephone that Saturday's Misrata fighting centred on a road to the port, where a Red Cross vessel brought in badly needed medical supplies earlier in the day.

A government-organised trip to Misrata revealed deserted streets and many heavily shelled buildings in the city's south.

As fighting raged on for the coastal town, where conditions are said to be desperate, a buoyant Moamar Gaddafi made his first television appearance for five days on Saturday.

Wearing his trademark brown robes and dark glasses, he was shown smiling and pumping his fists in the air at a school where he was welcomed ecstatically. Women ululated, one wept with emotion and pupils chanted anti-western slogans.