Libya Fight in Stalemate Between Qaddafi Forces, Rebels, U.S. General Says

The fight between Muammar Qaddafi’s forces and Libyan rebels is settling into a stalemate, the U.S. general who led the opening phase of the alliance military operation said, as the U.K. announced that a ship carrying humanitarian aid reached the besieged rebel-held city of Misrata.

NATO commanders are deploying more warplanes in their effort to halt forces loyal to Qaddafi. The military alliance’s jets flew 73 missions to identify and engage possible ground targets yesterday, up from 66 the day before. Rebels fleeing toward the city of Ajdabiya in eastern Libya said their tanks and a convoy were mistakenly hit by North Atlantic Treaty Organization fighter jets, the Associated Press reported. Ten rebels were killed, Al Arabiya television reported.

U.S. Army General Carter Ham, who heads the U.S. Africa Command, testified before a U.S. Senate panel that the use of NATO air power is “increasingly problematic” when it comes to hitting regime forces without endangering civilians and opposition fighters. Sending arms to the rebels is not a good idea until U.S. officials have a “better understanding of exactly who the opposition force is,” he said.

Asked by Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona whether the situation on the ground is “basically a stalemate,” Ham said, “Senator, I would agree with that at present.”

Oil Rises

Crude oil rose to a 30-month high in New York. Crude oil for May delivery rose 96 cents to $109.79 a barrel at 12:52 p.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Libya was Africa’s third biggest oil producer before the conflict began, according to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

The U.S. withdrew from “strike missions” when it transferred command to NATO on March 31. U.S. AC-130 gunships, which can be more accurate than higher-flying jet fighters for ground-attack missions, remain available to NATO, which also can request missions by the A-10 “Warthog,” another specialized ground-attack aircraft, Ham said.

Coalition air strikes have “significantly degraded” Qaddafi’s ability to attack civilians “with the notable exception of Misrata,” Ham told the Senate Armed Services Committee, referring to the coastal city near Tripoli that has been a battleground for weeks. “That is a particular challenge and one that I will, frankly, bear responsibility for as long as I live,” he said.

Relief Ship

A ship carrying food and medical aid has reached Misrata. The ship, the Marianne Danica, was chartered by the United Nations World Food Program and was carrying medicine for 30,000 people for one month as well as high-energy protein biscuits for 10,000 people, water purification kits and other aid, U.K. International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell’s ministry said in an e-mailed statement today.

Former Libyan Energy Minister Omar Fathi bin Shatwan, who fled to Malta April 1, said that the situation in Misrata is dire. “I came from Misrata, a city that has been under siege for 48 days, people are being killed every day, they have been surrounded by the loyalist troops and they are attacking all the time,” he said in an interview. “They have destroyed the city, cut off all water and electricity supplies. There is no food or medicines, there is nothing but fear and dead bodies all over the place,” he said.

NATO Criticized

While Shatwan praised the opening phase of coalition involvement, he criticized NATO’s command.

“It was good when military action was being led by the U.S., U.K. and France, but since NATO took over, it is a mess, and there is no real will to liberate Libya from the hardships Qaddafi troops are putting the Libyan people in,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who met with her Italian counterpart Franco Frattini in Washington yesterday, said the two considered how coalition countries can “do more to help the opposition make very fast progress.” The question of providing weapons may be discussed further at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers on April 14 and 15 in Berlin.

The U.K. is seeking to persuade Arab countries to train Libyan rebels, either directly or by paying private companies to do the work, a British defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He said Qatar or other Arab governments would have to provide the people and finance to avoid any allegations of Western “boots on the ground.”

Rebels Need Training

Rebels need to be taught how to hold ground and operate flanking maneuvers to consolidate battlefield advances, the official said. The U.K. estimates that the number of trained rebel soldiers is in the high hundreds to about 1,000, the official said.

Fighting along Libya’s coast has bogged down since rebels retreated earlier this week under heavy artillery fire from Brega, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) south of their stronghold of Benghazi in eastern Libya. NATO’s bombardment of Qaddafi’s military hardware, such as tanks and armored fighting vehicles, has forced the regime to change tactics and hide its heavy weaponry, Lungescu said.

NATO rejected Libyan regime accusations that its strikes caused oil-field fires in the Sarir region in the eastern interior. The alliance said forces loyal to Qaddafi were responsible for at least one fire in the desert region.

False Report

“The accusation by Colonel Qaddafi that NATO was responsible for fires in the Sarir oil fields is false and is a direct result of his attacks on his own people and infrastructure,” NATO said in an e-mailed statement.

The Sarir oil field was hit by an air strike and production was completely halted, Shokri Ghanem, chairman of the state-run National Oil Corp., said by telephone from Tripoli today.

Many pro-Qaddafi forces have shifted to pickup trucks similar to those used by the opposition, which French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe yesterday said is making it difficult for pilots to choose targets.

African leaders are pushing for a settlement that could involve persuading Qaddafi to relinquish power. The chairman of the African Union commission, Jean Ping, promised to send a delegation to Tripoli in coming days, according to an official who was involved in talks between Clinton and Frattini.

The U.S. and European governments have repeatedly said that Qaddafi must leave and have rejected diplomatic overtures from his government.

Waiting for Qaddafi

Curt Weldon, a former Republican member of Congress from Pennsylvania, led a private delegation to Tripoli at the invitation of a Qaddafi aide and told CNN today that he expects to meet the Libyan leader to press him to leave power. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Weldon didn’t represent the U.S. government, though the government was informed of his trip.

The rebels arranged their first international oil sale as the tanker Equator, which can carry 1 million barrels, departed the Marsa al-Hariga terminal near the port of Tobruk in rebel- held eastern Libya, according to ship-tracking data compiled by Bloomberg. The Equator, whose draft suggested it has a cargo on board, is now signaling Singapore as its destination, the data show. A full cargo would fetch more than $100 million for the rebels at the market rate.

[Source: By Patrick Donahue and Tony Capaccio, Bloomberg, 07Apr11]

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