More Qaddafi officers defect as NATO steps up airstrikes


A group of officers in Muammar Qaddafi’s military defected on Monday and joined rebel forces in the strategic Western town of Yefren as NATO warplanes stepped up their bombing in territory controlled by the Libyan leader.

The rebels—who pulled back from the plains on the road to Tripoli to the Nafusa Mountains last week—have been buoyed by an arms drop by France and said they would move to retake a key gateway to Tripoli.

Meanwhile in Benghazi on Monday, a large car bomb was found outside an upscale hotel used by Western diplomats and rebel politicians, security officials told AFP, which could fuel fears about a pro-Qaddafi cell operation in the rebel stronghold.

But the fighting on the ground is still making slow progress. The rag-tag force of rebel fighters is bogged down on three fronts and unable to break through to the capital.

In Misrata, a rebel-held city 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli, there was renewed fighting on the southern outskirts. A Reuters journalist at a hospital in the city saw the bodies of five fighters who had been killed on Monday.

“The (pro-Qaddafi) brigades carried out an attack today in the area of Abdul Raouf, south of Misrata, using heavy artillery and Grad rockets,” said a rebel spokesman who identified himself as Abdelsalam.

“The revolutionaries managed to repel the attack and blocked the advance of the brigades,” he told Reuters.

Russia and NATO, meanwhile, failed to narrow their differences over the Western air campaign in Libya, as alliance warplanes stepped up their bombing of regime targets.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused NATO of interpreting a UN resolution any way it wished, after talks with NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen that showed up differences rather than secure any agreement on a solution.

The scheduled NATO-Russia Council meeting in the Black Sea city of Sochi was joined at the last minute by South African President Jacob Zuma, fresh from an African Union summit that tried to forge a regional peace plan to end the conflict.

“So far, there is no common understanding over how the resolution is being implemented,” Mr. Lavrov said, referring to the UN Security Council resolution that paved the way for the air campaign.

“We want this resolution to be fulfilled literally, without expanding its interpretation.”

Russia abstained in the resolution vote at the Security Council but has since expressed growing anger over the duration and intensity of the strikes against targets of Colonel Qaddafi’s Libyan regime.

Last week Russia was particularly angered by a direct French arms drop to rebels fighting Colonel Qaddafi’s forces.

But Mr. Rasmussen vehemently defended the arms drop which he said was in line with the resolution.

“The delivery of weapons has taken place as part of protection of civilians and the ability to protect themselves against attacks,” he told reporters.

Libyan officials on Monday said they had intercepted two boats west of Tripoli loaded with Qatari weapons bound for the rebels.

Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaaim told reporters that following the weapons drop Mr. Qaddafi’s regime is “witnessing a new form of arms shipments by sea,” and warned that the weapons “could fall into the hands of Al Qaeda.”

He also said contacts between Tripoli and rebel-stronghold Benghazi were continuing across several cities in Europe in order to seek a reconciliation and avoid bloodshed.

(Mustapha Ajbaili, Night Editor of Al Arabiya English, can be reached at: Mustapha.ajbaili@mbc.net)