Ajdabiya, Apr 8: Rebel fighters sent scouts Friday toward the contested oil port of Brega to seek clues on whether pro-government forces took advantage of a mistaken NATO airstrike that pounded opposition tanks and sent survivors into retreat.
Rebels worry that troops loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi used the chaos after the NATO bombing to move within striking distance of the small but strategic town of Ajdabiya, which rebels are desperate to hold to avoid opening roads to the opposition's headquarters in Benghazi and Tobruk near the Egyptian border.
A rebel on the outskirts of Ajdabiya said a reconnaissance party came under attack just 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the town, suggesting pro-Gadhafi forces had made headway after the NATO error on Thursday. At least five fighters were killed and more than 20 injured.
In Naples, Italy, the deputy commander of the NATO operations in Libya acknowledged that coalition forces mistakenly hit the rebel tanks outside Ajdabiya. But he noted that the alliance had no information that the rebels were now using tanks that once belonged to Gadhafi's military.
“I am not apologizing,” Harding said. “The situation on the ground was and remains extremely fluid, and until yesterday we did not have information that (rebel) forces are using tanks,” he told reporters in Naples where the alliance's operational center is located.
Harding said Friday that NATO jets had conducted 318 sorties and struck 23 targets across Libya in the past 48 hours.
Over the past week, Gadhafi's forces had switched tactics by leaving their heavy armor behind and using only light trucks armed with heavy machine guns and fast-firing anti-aircraft cannons on the front lines between Brega and Ajdabiya.
These have proven very effective in disrupting repeated rebel attempts to push west toward the capital Tripoli, but Gadhafi's forces have not been able to drive the rebels back toward Benghazi or establish a solid front line.
Outside Ajdabiya, rebel fighters slapped peach-colored paint on their vehicles to try to distinguish from the pro-Gadhafi units.
“We are painting the trucks so NATO won't hit us,” said Salam Salim, a 29-year-old rebel militiaman.
Tensions between the rebels and NATO were flaring even before the latest accident, with the fighters criticizing the alliance for doing too little to help them.
A NATO official, meanwhile, said there is growing frustration with the rebels' perception that NATO is acting as their proxy air force. The U.N. mandate calls only for international air power to enforce a no-fly zone and prevent attacks on civilians—although Gadhafi's ground forces remain a primary target.
“We're trying to get messages back to them about what we're doing and what we're trying to achieve,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under standing NATO regulations.
Last week, NATO 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 he has ruled for more than four decades, but the rebels remain outnumbered and outgunned and have had difficulty in making headway into government-held territory.
The U.S. general who led the Libyan mission before NATO's takeover said Washington still provides some strike aircraft to NATO including powerful side-firing AC-130 gunship.
Army Gen. Carter Ham even predicted that the Pentagon may be forced one day to consider ground forces in Libya if the battle lines remain indefinitely stalled. But he noted any such decision would open America to serious political fallout for intervention in another Muslim nation.
“I suspect there might be some consideration of (ground forces). My personal view at this point would be that that's probably not the ideal circumstance, again for the regional reaction that having American boots on the ground would entail,” Ham told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday.
President Barack Obama has said repeatedly there will be no U.S. troops on the ground in Libya, although there are reports of small CIA teams in the country.
In Geneva, the U.N. children's agency said snipers have targeted children in Misrata, the only main rebel-held city in western Libya. UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado told reporters Friday that the agency has received “reliable and consistent reports of children being among the people targeted by snipers in Misrata.”
She was unable to say how many children have been wounded or killed by snipers in Libya's third-largest city. AP