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Friday, June 10, 2011

Qaddafi forces kill 20 rebels in Misrata bombardment as NATO denies helicopter shot down

Muammar Qaddafi’s forces killed at least 20 rebels and civilians when they bombarded Libya’s western Misrata region Friday, the rebels said as intense NATO-led strikes sent up plumes of smoke in Tripoli.

The latest flare-up in fighting came as US Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned the Western alliance’s air war on the Libyan strongman’s forces could be in peril due to military shortcomings.


A day after Libya’s rebels won a cash boost and crucial recognition from key powers, a rebel said Mr. Qaddafi’s forces fired Grad rockets, heavy artillery and tank shells at Dafina, on the outskirts of the city of Misrata.
“Twenty people, both civilians and rebels, were killed and more than 80 wounded,” in the bombarded sector 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Misrata city center, he said, according to Agence-France Presse.

“The rebels succeeded in repelling an attack on this sector,” the rebel said, and spoke of “dead and wounded among the Qaddafi forces.”

Misrata, a lifeline port city some 200 kilometers (125 miles) east of Tripoli, is the rebels’ most significant enclave in western Libya.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s special envoy Mikhail Margelov, meanwhile, said he was preparing to visit Tripoli to find a solution to the conflict after meeting the opposition in their Benghazi stronghold.

The surge of support for the rebels battling to oust Qaddafi came at a meeting on Thursday in Abu Dhabi of the International Contact Group on Libya, during which key powers agreed to unlock a billion dollars for their coffers.

At the meeting, the United States joined Australia and Spain in recognizing the rebels National Transitional Council (NTC) as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, piling more pressure on Qaddafi to step down.

The Misrata bombardment came as two loud blasts were heard in the center of the Libyan capital at about 3:00 pm (1300 GMT), coming from the eastern suburbs of Tajura and Ain Zara, residents told AFP.

Three powerful explosions shook the city center at around midnight. Other more distant blasts followed.

Tripoli has over the past two days been targeted by the most intense NATO air raids since the international military campaign was launched on March 19 under a UN mandate to protect Libyan civilians.

NATO, in a daily military update, said among the Tripoli targets attacked on Thursday were command and control facilities, an early warning radar and a surface-to-air missile launcher.

Alliance officials said that NATO has been scrambling warplanes against Qaddafi’s forces after Libyans commented on troop movements on websites like Twitter and Facebook, following verification by more traditional methods.

“We will take information from every source we can,” said British Wing Commander Mike Bracken, the Libya operation’s military spokesman. “We get information from open sources on the Internet, we get Twitter.”
However, Oslo, which has contributed six F-16 fighters, announced on Friday it will first reduce its participation before withdrawing from air operations on August 1.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told journalists on Friday that his country supported a three-month extension of the NATO air campaign but its six F-16s would not fly bombing missions.

NATO, meanwhile, denied a Libyan state television report that Libyan forces shot down a NATO helicopter in the sea off the coast of the town of Zlitan, Reuters reported.

A military official at the headquarters of NATO’s Libya mission in Naples said: “We have no indication to show that this is true. It’s a spurious claim.”

Libyan state television quoted a military spokesman as saying it was the third aircraft to be shot down by Libyan forces since NATO began air strikes on Libya in March.

In Moscow, Mr. Margelov said he believed there remained “a window of opportunity to hold talks between conflicting sides.”

“I am now involved in preparations for a Tripoli trip,” he said after returning from a visit to Benghazi, according to AFP.

“We will be ready to offer some kind of contours of a ‘roadmap’ for settling the Libya conflict after my trip to Tripoli. The process of acknowledging positions and accumulating material is now continuing.”

Mr. Margelov said he could not give a specific date for his next visit as Russia was waiting for NATO to arrange a transport corridor so the visit could go ahead in full security.

(Abeer Tayel, a senior editor at Al Arabiya English

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