Qaddafi’s Misrata games


Libyan opposition fighters accused Muammar Qaddafi of playing dirty games in Misrata in apparent contradiction of his regime's vow to halt fire in the western city, where salvos of Grad rockets from his forces exploded Sunday.

In a Misrata hospital, meanwhile, two captured pro-Qaddafi soldiers told Agence France-Presse that loyalist forces were losing their grip in the battle for the western port, and that their morale was sinking.

“Many soldiers want to surrender but they are afraid of being executed [by the rebels],” said Lili Mohammed, a Mauritanian mercenary hired by the Qaddafi regime to fight rebels in the country's third city.

“Qaddafi forces are losing,” in Misrata, said Misbah Mansuri, 25, another wounded loyalist fighter who said he was forcibly enlisted 45 days ago.

Both Mr. Mohammed and Mr. Mansuri spoke to AFP separately from their hospital room in the presence of a doctor, saying officers had abandoned the troops and their supply lines were cut.

Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said early on Sunday the army had suspended operations against rebels in Misrata, but not left the city, to enable local tribes to find a peaceful solution.

“The armed forces have not withdrawn from Misrata. They have simply suspended their operations,” he told a news conference in Tripoli.

“The tribes are determined to solve the problem within 48 hours… We believe that this battle will be settled peacefully and not militarily,” he said.

But Colonel Omar Bani, the military spokesman of the rebels’ Transitional National Council, said Colonel Qaddafi was “playing a really dirty game” aimed at dividing his opponents.

“It is a trick, they didn’t go,” Mr. Bani said in the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi. “They have stayed a bit out of Tripoli Street but they are preparing themselves to attack again.”

Later on Sunday bursts of automatic weapons fire could be heard and Grad rockets exploded in the city, the scene of deadly urban guerrilla fighting for weeks between rebels and Qaddafi loyalists.

Six people were killed and 34 wounded in Sunday’s fighting, said Dr. Khalid Abu Falra at Misrata's main private clinic.

Misrata suffered its heaviest toll in 65 days of fighting on Saturday, with 28 dead and 100 wounded compared with a daily average of 11 killed, said Dr. Falra.

Hundreds have been killed in the fighting for Misrata, raising fears of a humanitarian crisis in the besieged city.

Kuwait announced late Sunday that it was donating $180 million to the rebels, according to Al Arabiya.

In an exclusive interview with Al Arabiya on Sunday night, the President of the Libyan National Transitional Council, Moustafa Abdeljalil, accused Colonel Qaddafi’s forces of using “internationally illegal arms, especially over the last two days.”

Mr. Abdeljalil, who was speaking from Kuwait, denied reports coming out of the Qaddafi camp that he had been killed.

He said that Kuwait had provided his council with aid worth $180 million and praised the support extended “by all Arab countries except the government of Algeria.”

He said: “We blame our brothers in Algeria who allowed the use of their airplanes to transport mercenaries into our country to fight with Qaddafi’s forces against our people.”

Mr. Abdeljalil said, “We have a lot of evidence to show that a lot of Algerian fighters are among Qaddafi’s forces. In fact, we have many foreigner prisoners from Colombia, Algeria, Chad and even from Egypt.”

He added, “We fully understand the position of our siblings Tunisia and Egypt. They are both in a difficult situation and they have thousands of workers living in Libya.”

Mr. Abdeljalil refuted Colonel Qaddafi’s announcement of the ceasefire for two days. He said, “Qaddafi’s forces have been chased from Misrata and are now pretending that they will stop bombarding our cities. The strikes never stopped. In fact, they are now using illegal rockets measuring 5 meters in width and 15 meters in length. These are forbidden worldwide.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov phoned Libyan Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi to urge Tripoli to implement United Nations Security Council resolutions and end attacks on civilians.

“Mr. Lavrov said that the most important issue now is to stop the bloodshed and sufferings of the civilian population,” the Russian foreign ministry said on its Website on Sunday.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC he doubted Colonel Qaddafi’s forces were really going to withdraw. “This may be cover for using more insurgent type warfare without any uniforms and without tanks,” Mr. Hague said.

NATO warplanes staged raids on civil and military sites in Tripoli and other cities, Libya’s official JANA news agency said, without giving casualty numbers. Earlier raids by the alliance struck near a compound in the capital where Colonel Qaddafi resides.

Three explosions rocked Tripoli late Saturday as NATO warplanes overflew the capital, AFP journalists said, after several earlier blasts in the city center and outlying districts.

Heavy anti-aircraft and automatic arms fire was also heard across the city.

On Sunday, United States Senator John McCain, who visited the opposition stronghold of Benghazi last week, urged Washington to increase its air strikes on Libya, warning a prolonged stalemate would likely draw al-Qaeda into the conflict.

“It’s pretty obvious to me that the US has got to play a greater role on the air power side. Our NATO allies neither have the assets, nor frankly the will,” he said, while opposing the deployment of American troops on the ground.

Colonel Qaddafi’s regime accused the US, which has launched its first Predator drone strike on a rocket launcher targeting Misrata, of “new crimes against humanity” for deploying the low-flying, unmanned aircraft.

NATO said it had kept a “high operational tempo” of more than 3,000 sorties, nearly half of them strikes, since the transatlantic military alliance assumed full control of the mission at the end of last month.

An aid ship delivered 160 tons of food and medicine to the port city of Misrata on Saturday and evacuated around 1,000 stranded migrant workers and wounded civilians to Benghazi on its return.

Hundreds of people had lined up along the harbor front in hope of getting on board the vessel chartered by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The fourth such rotation brought to 4,100 the number of people of 21 different nationalities evacuated by the IOM from Misrata since the launch of a humanitarian program on 14 April, the organization said.

“Although the number of migrants in and around the harbor in Misrata is now believed to be around 1,500, there are reports of more people moving from suburbs in the west of the city towards the port area,” it said.

The United Nations refugee agency says about 15,000 people have fled fighting in western Libya into Tunisia in the past two weeks and a much larger exodus was feared. It also says that more than 570,000 people have fled Libya since February 15.

(Sara Ghasemilee of Al Arabiya can be reached at: [email protected]; and Ammar Banaziz, also of Al Arabiya, can be reached via email at: [email protected])