Libyan military attaché in UAE defects to rebels as NATO pounds Qaddafi compound


A Libyan military attaché at the country’s embassy in the United Arab Emirates told Al Arabiya television on Thursday he was quitting his post to join the rebel ranks, as NATO warplanes pounded Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s compound.

“I announce my split from the regime and my joining and wholehearted support for the February 17 revolution,” said Air Force Brigadier Ammar Bilqasem, who was wearing a badge of the rebel flag on the lapel of his jacket.

“Victory is near,” he said.

Mr. Bilqasem’s announcement came as NATO air strikes hit the compound in Tripoli where Colonel Qaddafi resides, killing six people and wounding 10 others, government officials said.

In the rebel stronghold of Benghazi a French private security contractor was shot dead and four others were arrested in a murky incident at a checkpoint in the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi, officials and other sources said Thursday.
“During a police check in Benghazi last night, five French nationals were detained,” French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said, according to Agence France-Presse.

“One of them was wounded by a bullet and died overnight in a hospital in Benghazi,” while the other four remain in detention, he added, confirming a report by a doctor at the hospital.

The French statement did not say who fired the bullet that killed the contractor in Benghazi, which is far from the frontline in the Libyan conflict and which at the moment is a relatively safe city.

Libyan TV said that one of the NATO air strikes on different sites in Tripoli had caused damage to the North Korean embassy.

Mustafa Abdul Jalil of the National Transitional Council (NTC) met with Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain to discuss the possibility of setting up a London office, British officials have confirmed.

Mr. Abdul Jalil also met Foreign Secretary William Hague of Britain to examine measures agreed at last week’s Contact Group meeting in Rome.

Four explosions in quick succession had rocked Tripoli early Thursday as NATO jets flew overhead, after Colonel Qaddafi appeared on state TV for the first time in almost two weeks, ending doubt over his fate since a NATO air strike killed his son.

There had been rumors that Colonel Qaddafi had been killed or disabled in an earlier bombing sortie by NATO planes.

The early morning blasts shook the windows of a hotel where journalists are staying in the capital.

Two plumes of white smoke could be seen rising above the city following the blasts, as emergency vehicle sirens wailed and sporadic gunfire rang out, according to AFP.

The strikes came after Libyan state TV on Wednesday showed footage it said was of Mr. Qaddafi meeting with tribal leaders, the first new video of him aired since an April 30 air strike that the regime termed an attempt on his life.

The regime said that strike killed his son Saif al-Arab and three of his grandchildren, in “a direct operation to assassinate the leader of this country.”

Sources close to Mr. Qaddafi have denied that his grandchildren were killed. The colonel is not beyond exaggerating claims of the demise of family members at the hands of foes, say analysts.

State TV said the Wednesday footage was of a meeting between the 68-year-old colonel and tribal dignitaries from the east of Libya, an area held by protesters seeking his ouster. Many tribal leaders in that region have aligned themselves with the rebels.

A Libyan official told AFP the video was shot around 7:30 pm (1730 GMT) on Wednesday.

The Libyan leader made his appearance on Wednesday in a brown robe, dark sunglasses and black cap, according to Reuters.

“We tell the world these are the representatives of the Libyan tribes,” said Mr. Qaddafi, pointing to the officials and naming a few of them.

“You will be victorious,” an old man told Colonel Qaddafi, referring to the three-month-old revolt in the North African country against the Libyan leader’s 41 years of authoritarian rule.

A screen behind Mr. Qaddafi showed a morning chat show on state al-Jamahiriya television. A zoom-in on the screen showed Wednesday’s date displayed in the corner.

Reuters journalists based at the same hotel where Mr. Qaddafi reportedly met the tribal leaders said some rooms had been sealed off during the day for an event, but they had not seen the Libyan leader. In the past, he has made high-profile entrances accompanied by a large staff of bodyguards, minders and aides.

An international coalition began carrying out strikes on forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi on March 19. NATO took command of operations over the North African country, of six million people, on March 31.

Massive protests in February—inspired by revolts that toppled long-time autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt—escalated into war when Mr. Qaddafi’s troops fired on demonstrators, and protesters seized several towns.

On Wednesday, protesters trying to overthrow Colonel Qaddafi said they had captured the airport in the city of Misrata in heavy fighting. Hailing it as a major victory, the protesters said they had also seized large quantities of weapons and munitions, Reuters reported.

No independent verification of the rebels’ account was available.

Misrata, a city of half a million people, besieged by Mr. Qaddafi’s forces for eight weeks, is strategically important to opposition hopes of winning the war because it is the only city they hold in the west of the North African country. It also has a key port.

In an effort to drum up more aid for the protesters’ cause, one of their senior leaders visited London on Thursday.

“I am very pleased to welcome Mr. Abdul Jalil to the UK,” Mr. Hague, Britain’s Foreign Minister, said in a Foreign Office (FCO) statement.

Issues that were addressed included the “establishment of a permanent NTC office in London and the provision of further non-lethal equipment and support to the NTC,” the British minister said.

The NTC chairman also met with Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell.

Meanwhile, the US military said has spent $750 million so far on the air war on Libya aimed at protecting Libyan civilians from the forces of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday.

US Navy ships and submarines off the Libyan coasts have unleashed on Libya at least 191 Tomahawk cruise missiles with a total cost of about $268.8 million, the Pentagon said.

US warplanes have dropped 455 precision-guided bombs, costing tens of thousands of dollars each.
A downed Air Force F-15E fighter jet will cost more than $60 million to replace. Millions of dollars more are spent every week on other aspects of warfare.

“Each sortie, even if it drops no munitions, is very pricey,” ABC News quotes Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information as saying. “These airplanes cost us tens of thousands of dollars to operate per hour, and the fancier you get in terms of planes, the costs get truly astounding.”

The three B-2 stealth bombers that flew from Missouri to Libya and back on an early bombing mission each cost an estimated $10,000 per hour to fly, a defense official told ABC News.

That means the planes, each on a 25-hour round-trip flight, ran up a bill of $750,000, and the 45 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) they dropped added at least $1.3 million more.

US President Barack Obama has not asked Congress for a supplemental defense budget to cover the costs of the Libyan operations but he may do so later this year if the war.

(Mustapha Ajbaili, an editor at Al Arabiya can be reached at: Mustapha.ajbaili@mbc.net. Abeer Tayel, an editor at Al Arabiya English, can be reached at: abeer.tayel@mbc.net)