A North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) bombing blitz, which the alliance insisted was not aimed at Muammar Gaddafi, rocked Tripoli on Tuesday, as rebels in besieged Misrata claimed to be pushing back the Libyan strongman’s forces.
The United Nations, meanwhile, said the offensive launched by Gaddafi’s forces was paralysing the oil-rich nation and causing the population to suffer widespread shortages of essential goods.
Jets screamed in low over the capital in the early hours, carrying out an unusually heavy bombardment that lasted roughly three hours, a correspondent on the scene reported.
The blasts came after Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said time was running out for Gaddafi.
He said Gaddafi “should realise sooner rather than later that there’s no future for him or his regime.”
Witnesses said the latest Nato-led air bombardment hit targets near Gaddafi’s compound, but the mission’s chief operations officer, Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini, denied that aim had been to take out the Libyan leader.
“All Nato targets are military targets, which means that the targets we’ve been hitting, and it happened also last night in Tripoli, are command and control bunkers,” Gabellini told reporters.
“Nato is not targeting individuals,” he said via videolink from his headquarters in Naples, Italy.
Asked whether Gaddafi was still alive, the Italian general said: “We don’t have any evidence. We don’t know what Gaddafi is doing right now.”
He added later: “To tell you the truth, we are not really interested in what he’s doing. Our mandate is to protect civilians from attacks or from the threats of attacks, so we are not looking after individuals.”
Sins of the father
Gaddafi had escaped a similar Nato bombing blitz on May 1 in Tripoli, which killed his second youngest son, Seif al-Arab, and three of his grandchildren.
The rebels said they had driven Gaddafi’s forces back from around Misrata, which has been under loyalist siege for some two months, and were poised to make another thrust.
After heavy clashes, the rebels controlled a stretch of coastal road west of Misrata, their last major stronghold in the west, prompting thousands to flee.
A correspondent said the rebels had forced government troops about 15km from Misrata, advancing to Dafnia, and were readying to move on Zliten, the next major town on the road to Tripoli.
Ahmad Hassan, a rebel spokesperson in Misrata, said the insurgents had also “liberated” areas south and east of the city, killing many Gaddafi troops and seizing a large amount of weapons. Eighteen rebels and civilians were wounded.
The rebel claims could not be immediately verified.
Gabellini said Nato had struck more than 30 military targets in and around Misrata since May 2, including a dozen main battle tanks, three rocket-launcher systems, three self-propelled artillery pieces and 15 ammunition storage sites.
There has also been deadly fighting in recent days on the frontline between the rebel-held east and the mainly government-held west, medics said.
The head of the rebel ambulance service, Doctor Ahmed al-Ignashi, said six opposition fighters were killed and 10 wounded on Monday in heavy exchanges 30km west of the strategic crossroads town of Ajdabiya.
“I assume there were heavy losses on the Gaddafi side,” he added, although he conceded that he could not confirm any casualties.
Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency appealed to all shipping in the Mediterranean to treat all boats leaving Libya as being in need of assistance after consistent reports that a vessel carrying as many as 600 people had capsized last week leaving many dead.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said the number of flimsy and overloaded boats carrying people fleeing Libya was increasing and recent incidents raised fears about their safety.
“We believe that any boat from Libya should be considered at first glance as a boat that is in need of assistance,” UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming said.
“We believe that all of these boats are carrying people who are trying to escape, many of whom are weakened by conflict, please do not wait for a call of distress.”
Egypt renewed a visa waiver for Libyans, airport security sources said, two days after it started requiring visas from citizens of its western neighbour without offering any explanation.
“Orders have arrived to waive visas for Libyans,” one source said, without elaborating.
Egypt imposed the visa requirement on Sunday, sending many Libyans trying to flee the conflict in their homeland into a panic.
The UN said Monday that nearly 750 000 people have fled Libya since Gaddafi’s forces launched an offensive against anti-government demonstrators in mid-February. — AFP