Benghazi: US Senator John McCain, one of the strongest proponents in Congress of the American military intervention in Libya, said Friday that Libyan rebels fighting Muammar Gaddafi's troops are his heroes.
The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee made the remark after arriving in Benghazi, a city that has been the opposition capital in the rebel-held eastern Libya.
McCain said he was in Benghazi "to get an on the ground assessment of the situation" and planned to meet with the rebel National Transition Council, the de-facto government in the eastern half of the country, and members of the rebel military.
"They are my heroes," McCain said of the rebels as he walked out of a local hotel in Benghazi. He was travelling in an armoured Mercedes jeep and had a security detail. A few Libyans waved American flags as his vehicle drove past.
McCain's visit is the highest yet by an American official to the rebel-held east and a boost to the anti-Gaddafi forces. Details of the trip were shrouded in secrecy due to heightened security in a country fiercely divided by the two-month-old anti-Gaddafi rebellion.
McCain's trip comes as Defence Secretary Robert Gates announced on Thursday that President Barack Obama has authorised armed Predator drones against forces loyal to Gaddafi. It is the first time that drones will be used for airstrikes since the United States turned over control of the operation to NATO on April 4.
The rebels have complained that NATO airstrikes since then have largely been ineffective in stopping Gaddafi forces.
Invoking the humanitarian disasters in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s, McCain pressed for US military intervention in Libya in February, weeks before the UN Security Council authorised military action to protect civilians and impose a no-fly zone.
When Obama acted with limited congressional consultation, McCain defended the president, saying he couldn't wait for Congress to take even a few days to debate the use of force. If he had, "there would have been nothing left to save in Benghazi," the rebels' de-facto capital.
But as the US handed operational control over to NATO — and withdrew US combat aircraft — McCain criticised the administration.
"For the United States to withdraw our unique offensive capabilities at this time would send the wrong signal," McCain said. He said the US must not fail in Libya and said he spoke as someone experienced in a lost conflict, a reference to his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
McCain also has pushed for arming the rebels, saying the US and its partners cannot allow Gaddafi to consolidate his hold on one section of the country and create a military deadlock.
First Published: Friday, April 22, 2011, 17:04