French Foreign Minister Defends NATO Airstrikes in Libya

April 6, 2011 - 8:34 AM

Ajdabiya, Libya (AP) - The French foreign minister defended NATO airstrikes in Libya against mounting rebel complaints Wednesday, saying it has become hard to distinguish Moammar Gadhafi's forces from civilians and friendly forces.

The rebels say the alliance has been slow to launch airstrikes against government troops on the eastern front lines and that allowed the opposition to be routed from the oil port of Brega.

"NATO is not doing their job, the aistrikes are late and never on time. NATO is not helping us. Gahdafi still gets ammunition and supplies to his forces, that's why he is pushing us back," said Pvt. Mohammed Abdullah, a 30-year-old former member of Gadhafi's army who has joined the rebel side. "We don't know what he would be able to do if there are no airstrikes."

He said the rebels had fought back and were now about 12 miles (20 kilometers) west of Brega.

NATO last week took control over the international airstrikes that began March 19 as a U.S.-led mission. The airstrikes thwarted Gadhafi's efforts to crush the rebellion in the North African nation he has ruled for more than four decades, but the rebels remain outnumbered and outgunned and have had difficulty pushing into government-held territory even with air support.

Abdel-Fattah Younis, chief of staff for the rebel military and Gadhafi's former interior minister, blamed NATO's bureaucratic procedures for eight-hour delays between the time the rebels inform NATO of enemy targets and when its attack planes arrive overhead.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the situation has become increasingly complicated because Gadhafi's forces are positioning themselves in heavily populated civilian areas to make targeting difficult.

Airstrikes also have destroyed most of Gadhafi's aircraft and armored vehicles, and his troops are using pickups and less sophisticated weapons similar to those used by the rebels, Juppe said. "The military situation in the field is confused and uncertain and the risk of engulfing exists," he said in a radio interview.

He also said the standoff in the besieged western rebel-held city of Misrata was complicated by the need to prevent civilians from being mistakenly hit by the airstrikes.

"Misrata is in a situation which cannot carry on," he said. "But I want to make clear that we categorically asked that there is no collateral damage on the civilian population so it makes the military interventions more difficult because Gadhafi's troops understood it very well and are getting closer to the civilian populations.

A NATO spokeswoman also dismissed the criticism, saying the number of airstrikes is increasing every day. She also said Misrata remains a priority of the air campaign.

Carmen Romero said the alliance flew 137 missions on Monday, 186 on Tuesday, and planned 198 on Wednesday.

But Romero also noted that NATO's priority is to avoid harming civilians and therefore "all operations are carried out in a very vigilant way."

To help avoid confusion, ex-Libyan military officers who have joined the opposition were trying to keep untrained fighters from advancing from the eastern gateway city of Ajdabiya toward Brega, but that was causing tensions within the rebel ranks.

"We only allow the people to have training to pass," said Walid al-Obeidi, a 25-year-old from nearby Benghazi who was a private in the Libyan army before defecting and was manning a checkpoint on the western outskirts of Ajdabiya.

Trained rebels flew through the checkpoints in pickups mounted with anti-aircraft weapons. One rebel in uniform got out with a grenade hanging from his vest and a Kalashnikov rifle flung across his shoulder. Others gathered around him, chanting: "God, Libya and freedom!"

But a scuffle broke out at the when one of the untrained fighters tried to go through toward the front line.

"Kill me here if you don't want to let me in! Let me in, I am trained to use weapons and mortars. My friends are there, let me in," he said, refusing to give his name to reporters as some guards in camouflage uniforms prevented him from passing while others tried to calm things down.

In another incident, a pickup truck carrying a group of ragtag rebels tried to go around the gate, but a rebel army officer fired warning shots in the air, then into the truck's tires to stop it.

Those rebels who were not allowed to advance sat around, chanting anti-Gadhafi songs and clapping.

Raib bin Aruz, a 23-year-old student from the coastal town of Darna, said he hoped they be allowed to go to the front in the afternoon, after an expected airstrike.

Saeed Imbarak, 43, a businessman, said he wanted to fight but didn't have a weapon.

"Gahdafi has weapons but we don't have enough. The Libyan people need more support from NATO. If we don't get it we expect a lot of massacres from Gahdafi. We expect him to take over all of Libya and to massacre all of us," he said.

Although NATO does not normally release information on the number of airstrikes on Gadhafi's forces, it said warplanes had bombed 14 targets on Monday. Canadian Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard -- who commands the Libyan operation from his headquarters in Naples, Italy, -- estimated that 30 percent of Gadhafi's military capacity has been destroyed.

In a step toward getting more money for weapons and other needs, a Liberian-flagged oil tanker arrived Tuesday in the eastern city of Tobruk to load up the rebels' first shipment of oil for export in nearly three weeks as part of a deal with Qatar.

The tanker can carry 1 million barrels of oil, less than the 1.6 million barrels Libya produced every day on average before the crisis.

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Associated Press writers Jenny Barchfield in Paris and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.