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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Gaddafi using human shields to curb air strikes


Muammar Gaddafi is using human shields to foil air strikes on his forces, NATO officials said on Wednesday as rebels angry at alleged Western inaction battled anew to advance on the key coast road.

In their eastern heartland, ill-trained rebels set out yet again to retake terrain lost in several headlong retreats from Gaddafi's superior firepower, reporting heavy fighting west of their frontline town of Ajdabiyah as both sides tried to end a ragged stalemate in the oil-producing state's civil war.

Mohamed el-Masrafy, a member of a rebel special forces unit, said clashes broke out at 6 a.m. (0400 GMT) after government forces were resupplied with ammunition and swung eastwards out of the oil port of Brega, 80 km (50 miles) from Ajdabiyah.

NATO found itself on the defensive against rebel complaints that air strikes had subsided since it took over the mission from a U.S.-British-French coalition last week.

Spokeswoman Carmen Romero maintained that "the pace of our operations continues unabated. The ambition and the position of our strikes has not changed."

She said that relieving the siege of Misrata, a rebel enclave in the west, remained the priority but conceded that Gaddafi's army was proving a resourceful, elusive target.

"The situation on the ground is constantly evolving. Gaddafi's forces are changing tactics, using civilian vehicles, hiding tanks in cities such as Misrata and using human shields to hide behind," Romero told reporters in Brussels.

She reiterated NATO's position that air power had destroyed 30 percent of Gaddafi's military capacity thus far.

Western air power has fashioned a rough military balance in Libya, preventing Gaddafi troops from overrunning the motley rebel force dominating the east -- but not forceful enough for the insurgents to advance solidly hundreds of kilometers along the Mediterranean coast to the capital Tripoli in the west.

Masrafy told Reuters that the front line was about 20 km (12 miles) east of Brega, the focus of a weeklong to-and-fro battle. A sustained government assault on Tuesday drove rebels about halfway back to Ajdabiyah, gateway to their Benghazi powerbase.

Tuesday's pullback "wasn't a full withdrawal, it's back and forth," said Hossam Ahmed, a defector from Gaddafi's army as pick-ups loaded with machineguns and rocket launchers rolled westwards while several families fleeing the fighting in cars packed with their belongings passed in the opposite direction.

Journalists were prevented on Wednesday from heading west from Ajdabiyah, making it difficult to assess the fighting.

Like other rebels, Ahmed expressed frustration at what he called NATO's hesitant approach. "There have been no air strikes. We hear the sound, but they don't bomb anything."


Said Emburak, an Ajdabiyah resident, chimed in: "What is NATO waiting for? We have cities that are being destroyed. Ras Lanuf, Bin Jawad, Brega, and Gaddafi is destroying Misrata completely."


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