NATO role under fire as Libya hits stalemate

Forces loyal to Libya`s dictator Muammar Gaddafi shelled rebels in Misrata.

Misrata: Forces loyal to Libya`s under-siege dictator Muammar Gaddafi shelled rebels in Misrata with civilian deaths reported as NATO`s role in the conflict faced scrutiny with no endgame in sight.

The fighting in Misrata came after government troops shelled the edge of Ajdabiya, further east, forcing insurgents to retreat, and as the European Union announced measures to evacuate the wounded and provide food, water and medical supplies.

"There is an intense exchange of fire with light arms, rockets and heavy artillery between the rebels and the regime`s Army," said a correspondent, who was among a group of journalists brought to Misrata by Libyan authorities.

The correspondent said they were about five kilometres (three miles) into the town that extends 30 kilometres along the Mediterranean coast.

As they arrived at a hospital, where they had been brought to see casualties from the fighting, an officer escorting them was lightly wounded by a sniper.

"We hit the dirt before heading back the other way," he said.

The clashes occurred as a debate raged over how well NATO air forces are enforcing an UN-mandated no-fly zone and as a senior US military officer said that he doubted that the rebels could dislodge Gaddafi.

Pressing the United Nations to allow a humanitarian mission, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton sent a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon saying the 27-nation bloc was ready to come to the aid of Misrata.

"Everyone knows that we must do something and in the coming days we will have a large mobilisation of the international community," a high-ranking European diplomat said earlier on condition of anonymity.

A source in the insurgent stronghold of Benghazi said four people, including two children, had been killed in Misrata and 10 others wounded on Friday.

"Gaddafi forces continue to fire blindly on the houses of Misrata," the rebel source said. "Today, four martyrs fell, including two children under age four."

He repeated criticism of NATO air forces, who are enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya to protect the population, saying "civilians are being killed in Misrata”, and urging "France to take command of the operations”.

Earlier, rebels in Misrata criticised NATO for what they said was its lack of response to a relentless pounding by Gaddafi forces for more than a month.

Misrata, about 215 kilometres (130 miles) east of Tripoli, has seen fighting for more than 40 days since the start of the uprising against Gaddafi.

NATO was already facing criticism by the opposition after its warplanes hit rebel tanks on Thursday near the oil town of Brega, killing four people, wounding 14 and leaving six others missing.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Friday called the bombing an "unfortunate incident”.

"I strongly regret the loss of life," Rasmussen said of the strike, labelled by rebel military commander General Abdelfatah Yunis as a NATO "error”.

The operation`s deputy commander, British Rear Admiral Russell Harding, refused to apologise, saying the alliance was unaware rebels were using tanks and that it was becoming hard to distinguish between the two sides on the road.

The rebels said they were "not seeking an apology but an explanation”.

"We are not questioning the intention of the NATO," rebel spokesman Shamsiddin Abdulmolah said.

"It appears that there has been a breakdown of communication, perhaps due to the visibility on the ground... and that the positions of our tanks have not make clear to the NATO," he said.

Yunis insisted on Thursday night that the rebels had told NATO they were moving T-55 and T-72 heavy tanks from Benghazi to Brega.

A source close to key Western envoys in Benghazi who are in regular contact with the opposition Transitional National Council said "the problem is there are no official direct links" between the rebel military leadership and NATO.

The source said communications equipment was due in Benghazi on Friday to give the rebels a link to a European capital, and that messages to NATO could be passed through that channel as an interim measure.

In Benghazi, around 400 protesters chanted "Down with NATO" in reaction to the Brega bombing.

With little tactical headway being made by the rebels despite NATO support, General Carter Ham, head of US Africa Command, said in Washington on Thursday it was unlikely they could launch an assault on Tripoli and oust Gaddafi.

Asked at a Senate hearing about the chances that the opposition could "fight their way" to Tripoli and replace Gaddafi, Ham replied: "Sir, I would assess that as a low likelihood."

His comments underscored growing concern in Washington and European capitals that the conflict is reaching a stalemate, with Gaddafi firmly in control in Tripoli and poorly organised rebels unable to turn the tide.

Washington on Friday hit Libya`s Premier and its oil and finance ministers with sanctions, in a fresh bid to fracture Gaddafi`s inner circle.

Meanwhile, a UN human rights team set up to investigate alleged violations in Libya will leave on Sunday from Geneva on a field mission, the head of the team, Cherif Bassiouni said on Friday.

The 47-member UN Human Rights Council had unanimously decided to set up the investigation into suspected crimes against humanity after Libya`s Army and Air Force fired on civilians.

Tripoli confirmed it is holding four journalists and promised to release them soon, said the online news site GlobalPost, which employs one of the detained journalists.

The four, two from the United States, a Spaniard and a South African, went missing on April 04.

Bureau Report

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