Libyan Rebels Urge Stronger U.S. Military Role in Their Fight

April 13, 2011 - 5:44 AM

Doha, Qatar (AP) - A spokesman for Libyan rebels urged the U.S. military Wednesday to reassert of stronger role in the NATO-led air campaign or risk more civilian casualties in the stalemate fighting between Moammar Gadhafi and forces seeking to end his four-decade rule.

The appeal by the spokesman, Mahmoud Shammam, appeared to set the urgent tone for the rebels' meetings with the U.N.'s secretary-general and other top Western and Arab envoys as they gathered in Qatar's capital to discuss ways to end the Libyan crisis.

But Shamman said the anti-Gadhafi forces will not bend on their demands that any peace proposal require Gadhafi and his inner circle to leave the country. The rebel conditions for Gadhafi's ouster effectively killed a ceasefire bid by Africa's main political bloc this week.

Shammam also urged NATO to step up its air campaign to hit pro-Gadhafi forces in efforts to protect civilians and appealed for a greater role by the United States, which turned over operations to the military bloc last month. Shammam's comments echoed calls by Foreign Minister Alain Juppe and others as government forces shelled the rebel-held city of Misrata in western Libya.

"When the Americans were involved the mission was very active and it was more leaning toward protecting the civilians," said Shammam.

"NATO is very slow responding to these attacks on the civilians. We'd like to see more work toward protecting the civilians," Shammam said before the one-day conference in Qatar's capital that includes Britain's foreign secretary, State Department envoy William J. Burns and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

It also is expected to be the first high-profile forum for Gadhafi's former foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, who defected to Britain last month. But rebel officials insisted Koussa has no role in their movement.

In Benghazi, the rebels' stronghold in eastern Libya, rebel spokesman Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga said Tuesday that talks with Koussa was "not on the agenda."

The host for the first meeting of the Libyan Contact Group -- the wealthy Gulf state of Qatar -- is one of the few Arab countries providing warplanes to the NATO air campaign and has helped Libyan rebels sell oil to buy weapons and supplies.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he believes the Libyan opposition is "steadily becoming better organized," but could not predict how long the military stalemate will persist.

"It will end at some stage with the departure of Gadhafi, with a political process in Libya that is a more inclusive process," he told the BBC.

But an official from the African Union -- which tried this week to broker a peace pact -- suggested there is no international consensus on trying to force out Gadhafi.

"We cannot as international or regional organizations say, `Go.'" said Noureddine Mezni, a spokesman for the bloc's chairman.

On Tuesday, French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet complained that France and Britain were carrying "the brunt of the burden." He said the reduced U.S. effort -- American forces are now in support, not combat, roles in the airstrike campaign -- have made it impossible "to loosen the noose around Misrata," which has become a symbol of the resistance against Gadhafi.

"Let's be realistic. The fact that the U.S. has left the sort of the kinetic part of the air operation has had a sizable impact. That is fairly obvious," said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.

Libyan opposition spokesman Ali al-Issawi said that Gadhafi's soldiers have killed about 10,000 people throughout the country and injured 30,000 others, with 7,000 of the injured facing life-threatening wounds. He said an additional 20,000 people were missing and suspected of being in Gadhafi's prisons. There was no way to independently verify his claims.

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Ben Hubbard in Benghazi, Libya, contributed to this report.