Gaddafi rockets force exodus from western Libya

Reuters , Wednesday 4 May 2011

Libyan army fires volleys of rockets at the opposition-held town of Zintan in the Western Mountains, pressing on with a campaign that has created a humanitarian crisis and forced thousands to flee the country

Libyan rebel fighters run across a street in the besieged city of Misrata, Libya. (Photo: AP)

NATO officers met on Wednesday in Brussels to review their operations' progress, rejecting assessments of stalemate on the battlefield despite their intervention, as nations prepared for a meeting in Rome on Thursday to help to secure rebel finances.

Rebels said more than 40 Grad rockets hit Zintan late on Tuesday, and aid deliveries to the western port of Misrata had been hindered by Libyan armed forces. The besieged city has become one of the bloodiest battlefields in the two-month war.

Rebel spokesmen said fighting had flared again in Misrata's eastern suburbs, but that intense air strikes by NATO planes appeared to have won the port, the city's lifeline, a respite in shelling by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces.

A ship aiming to rescue 1,000 African and Asian migrant workers and people injured in fighting in Misrata docked there on Wednesday. Around 12,000 people have been rescued from the city by a dozen aid ships.

In Tripoli, witnesses heard two loud explosions late on Tuesday but there was no explanation of their cause.

Gaddafi, who seized power in a 1969 coup, has not been seen in public since a NATO missile attack on Saturday on a house in Tripoli, which killed his youngest son and three grandchildren. Officials in Tripoli said he was in good health.

U.S. intelligence officials believe Gaddafi is alive, CIA Director Leon Panetta said. "(The) best intelligence we have is that he's still alive," Panetta told NBC News.

Vowing to fight to the death, Gaddafi has not followed the examples of fellow leaders in Egypt and Tunisia who stepped down as a tide of popular unrest rolled across the Arab world.

The civil war has split the oil-producing desert state, Africa's fourth biggest, into a government-held western area round the capital Tripoli and an eastern region held by ragged but dedicated rebel forces.

A senior commander of NATO's Libya mission on Tuesday rejected suggestions from military analysts that the war was in a stalemate and said the alliance was achieving its goals.

"I personally don't think there is a real stalemate -- let's say we are going slowly but steadily," he said by video conference from the NATO mission headquarters in Naples.

Western countries that launched the Libya campaign in March had hoped for a swift overthrow of Gaddafi, but his better-trained and equipped militias have halted rebel advances despite a supporting bombing campaign now led by NATO.

Military chiefs of the 28 NATO states and partner countries met in Brussels on Wednesday to assess the progress of NATO operations, including Libya. NATO officials said talks would include Arab countries taking part in the Libya operation.

The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said an exodus from the Western Mountains region had resumed, with Libyan families fleeing into southern Tunisia.
"This past weekend, more than 8,000 people, most of them ethnic Berbers, arrived in Dehiba in southern Tunisia. Most are women and children," UNHCR spokesman

Adrian Edwards told a news briefing in Geneva. Tens of thousands have already fled.
The Dehiba crossing point has changed hands several times in the last week, with fighting spilling over onto Tunisian soil.

Meanwhile, more people have been fleeing Libya by sea to Italy, after a 10-day break due to bad weather.

While a few rebel pockets such as Zintan and Misrata resist Gaddafi's forces in western Libya, in the largely rebel-held east the most pressing need is for cash to try to restore infrastructure and establish a viable administration.

Rebels said they expected up to three billion dollars in credit soon from Western governments to feed and supply their territories in the east and support their campaign.
With Libya's economy in tatters after more than two months of civil war, funds to pay for food, medicine and the state salaries on which most people depend are running low.

Securing financing for rebels and facilitating contacts with defectors will be the focus of Libya talks in Rome on Thursday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.
Juppe told France 24 television the meeting of the so-called "Contact Group" on Libya, including Western and Middle Eastern countries, the United Nations, the African Union and the Arab League, would discuss setting up a financing mechanism.

"It's not easy. There are Libyan assets that are frozen and for legal reasons unfreezing them is difficult," Juppe said.

Juppe said another aim of the Rome meeting was to build contacts with defectors from Gaddafi's government and officials who want to leave it. "There are a lot of officials from Tripoli who want to talk. We are going to try to coordinate," he said.

He said participants would also be asked to consider French President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to organise a separate conference in the weeks before a gathering of "friends" of Libya, including Gaddafi defectors and various political groups, to work on a political solution to the crisis.

The insurgents had hoped for a swift overthrow of Gaddafi but his better-trained and better-equipped forces halted the westward rebel advance from their stronghold of Benghazi and forced a stalemate in the fighting.

The revolt in Libya is the bloodiest yet against long-entrenched rulers common across the Middle East and North Africa. The Arab Spring has seen the overthrow of the veteran presidents of Tunisia and Egypt -- Libya's western and eastern neighbours.

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