BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — A rebel military leader lashed out at NATO Tuesday, saying it was falling short in its mission to protect Libyan civilians. The alliance said ruler Moammar Gadhafi’s forces position heavy weapons in populated areas, preventing some airstrikes.
Abdel-Fattah Younis, chief of staff for the rebel military and Gadhafi’s former interior minister, said he was asking the opposition’s leadership council to take their grievances to the U.N. Security Council, which authorized force in Libya to stop government troops from wiping out the anti-Gadhafi uprising that began Feb. 15.
NATO forces “don’t do anything” even though the United Nations gave them the right to act, Younis said. He said bureaucracy means that NATO strikes sometimes come eight hours after rebels’ have communicated targets.
“The people will die and this crime will be on the face of the international community forever. What is NATO doing?” Younis said.
NATO last week took control over the international airstrikes that began March 19 as a U.S.-led mission. The airstrikes thwarted Gadhafi’s efforts to crush the rebellion in the North African nation he has ruled for more than four decades, but the rebels remain outnumbered and outgunned and have had difficulty pushing into government-held territory even with air support.
The government pushed back rebel forces in a strategic oil town to the east Tuesday, while rebels claimed they fended off an attack by Gadhafi’s forces in one of a string of opposition-controlled towns southwest of Tripoli, the capital. The rebels have maintained control of much of the eastern half of Libya since early in the uprising, while Gadhafi has clung to much of the west.
Gadhafi has been putting out feelers for a cease-fire, but refuses to step down as the opposition is demanding. On Tuesday his government announced a new foreign minister: Abdelati al-Obeidi, who has been in Europe seeking a diplomatic solution. He replaces Moussa Koussa, who defected last week.
Al-Obeidi’s deputy Khaled Kaim said the opposition council doesn’t represent most Libyans and that al-Qaida is exploiting the crisis. He accused nations supporting the airstrikes of supporting terrorism “by arming the militias, by providing them with materials, and the coalition’s decision to starve 85 percent of the Libyan population, while there was another course for solving this crisis, which was the political course.”
Kaim said “history will not forgive” Libyans who sought foreign help to change the regime. “People will reject them whether they are with or against Moammar Gadhafi,” he said.
Some nations, including the U.S., have considered arming the rebels but have not done so.
Brig. Gen. Mark Van Uhm of NATO said Tuesday that airstrikes have so far destroyed 30 percent of Gadhafi’s military capacity.
On Monday, the alliance said it carried out 14 attacks on ground targets across the country, destroying radars, munitions dumps, armored vehicles and a rocket launcher. Three-quarters of Monday’s scheduled strike missions, however, had to return without dropping their bombs or launching their missiles because Gadhafi loyalists made it more difficult for pilots to distinguish between civilians and regime troops, Van Uhm said.
The general and a doctor in besieged western city of Misrata said Gadhafi’s forces had recently changed tactics in there by moving tanks and other heavy equipment to civilian areas.
“They snuck their anti-aircraft weapons and tanks into the city. They are between the apartment buildings and the trees,” said the doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Younis, however, said civilians have cleared out of areas of Misrata occupied by Gadhafi’s forces and that NATO “would have lifted the siege days ago” if it wanted to.
“Children are dying every day and women and men are dying every day from shelling. If NATO waited another week, that will be the end of Misrata. There won’t be anyone left.”
Asked for a response, NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu said: “The facts speak for themselves. The tempo of operations has continued unabated.”
Younis’ press conference — a rare public appearance by the top commander — was a sharp break in diplomatic protocol as the opposition seeks more airstrikes and other support, including arms, from the international community. The rebels’ political leadership also seeks recognition of its council as the only legitimate government in Libya.
The rebels were holding talks with White House envoy Chris Stevens in Benghazi, their de facto capital in eastern Libya. Stevens was trying to get a better idea of who the rebels are, what they want and what their capabilities are, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
Stevens’ visit could pave the way for U.S. recognition of the Transitional National Council as Libya’s legitimate government, although no decision is imminent, Toner said. Three countries — France, Qatar and Italy — already have recognized the council.
The rebel leadership also apologized for the 1988 bombing of a jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people, most of them Americans, and it pledged to cooperate with all investigations. In a statement read by Jason McCue, a British lawyer representing victims’ families, the council said it had given evidence to Victoria Cummings, the widow of one victim. McCue declined to say what the evidence was.
Gadhafi has accepted Libya’s responsibility for the attack but hasn’t admitted personally giving the order to carry it out.
The Libyan government took foreign journalists to the western city of Zawiya, where an uprising was put down in weeks of battles and the government claimed stability had returned.
Journalists were taken to see a hospital where rebels sought treatment. Nurses there staged a pro-Gadhafi rally for the press corps’ benefit.
Massoud al-Deeb was among the many doctors who helped treat the rebels and said that many of them were Libyan locals from Zawiya — which goes against much of the government line that the rebels were expatriates from Egypt and Algeria.
“They are all our people. I helped both sides (rebels and Gadhafi forces),” said al-Deeb. “We had 20-30 injured people every day, mostly with gunshot wounds. We have no statistical data. The injured were sometimes brought in by their families.”
The city remained essentially a ghost town, with most of the shops shuttered and buildings pockmarked with bullets and shell fire.
Near the main square, the rebels’ former base in Zawiya, a dirt lot was all that remained of a mosque that served as their hospital, jail and meeting place. The government razed it, leaving little but bulldozer tracks deeply scratched into the soil.
Some locals told reporters that the rebels’ acts had desecrated the mosque, but a businessman named Mohammad, sitting in cafe, said many people were in fact unhappy with the decision.
“How can you remove a mosque in a central square just like that? It’s a Muslim country,” said Mohammad, who wouldn’t give his last name for fear of reprisals. Even so, he said he wants Gadhafi to stay.
“When the revolutionaries were here, more than 50 percent of people supported them. People thought things would change and improve,” he said. “Then the revolutionaries were defeated and they ran away to the west. … Now I think Gadhafi should stay because I want stability and I want to keep my shop.”
Also in the west, a rebel said Gadhafi’s forces had attempted to take the mountainous town of Yefren, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) southwest of Tripoli, on Monday, but that by Tuesday the rebels had regained control.
Shaban Abusitta, a rebel leader from the town of Nalut, about 125 miles southwest of Tripoli, said youths from Nalut and Zintan farther southwest infiltrated Yefren and helped rebels there fight for the town.
He said that the armed forces had surrounded the town and began launching rockets into Yefren. The rebels, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, attacked the armed forces’ lines and were able to push them farther away from the town.
In eastern Libya, Gadhafi loyalists and opponents have fought a tug-of-war for weeks on the road from Benghazi to Tripoli, with a few main towns and oil ports changing hands repeatedly. Though Gadhafi’s forces are stronger, airstrikes have helped the rebels hold back an onslaught.
The rebels had managed to take part of the oil town of Brega on Monday, but the rocket and artillery salvos unleashed on the rebels Tuesday indicated the government’s offensive capabilities remain very much intact.
“When you see this, the situation is very bad. We cannot match their weapons,” said Kamal Mughrabi, 64, a retired soldier who joined the rebel army. “If the planes don’t come back and hit them, we’ll have to keep pulling back.”
Rebel attempts to fire rockets and mortars against the government forces were met with aggressive counter bombardments that sent many of the rebel forces scrambling back all the way to the town of Ajdabiya, dozens of miles (kilometers) away.
Rebel forces have been helped by the arrival on the front of more trained soldiers and heavier weapons, but they are still struggling to match the more experienced and better equipped government troops. In a step toward getting more money for weapons and other needs, a tanker arrived Tuesday near the eastern city of Tobruk to load up the rebels’ first shipment of oil for export in nearly three weeks.
The tanker can carry 1 million barrels of oil, less than the 1.6 million barrels Libya produced every day on average before the crisis. Analysts viewed the delivery as a symbolic step forward for a country that had been 17th among the world’s oil producers.
Al-Shalchi reported from Zawiya. Associated Press writers Ryan Lucas in Benghazi, Slobodan Lekic in Brussels, Matthew Lee in Washington, Jane Wardell and Cassandra Vinograd in London and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.