Tripoli/Washington, Apr 6: Angry rebels today deprecated NATO for “slackening” the pace of its military campaign which faced fresh challenges with Muammar Gaddafi's troops changing tactics by using human shields to thwart air strikes.
NATO officials denied any slowdown of its operations in Libya but conceded that Gaddafi's forces were adopting “hit and hide” strategy and also moving in civilian vehicles to prevent the coalition from identifying targets.
The rebels who faced heavy pounding from Gaddafi's forces in Misurata, about 200 km east of Tripoli, said if NATO keeps waiting to act, “there will be nothing left to protect”.
“Everyday, civilians are dying in Misurata. NATO is doing nothing,” said rebel leader Abdelfatah Yunis.
“If NATO waits for another week, it will be a crime that NATO will have to carry,” Al Jazeera quoted him as saying.
“We will do everything to protect the civilians of Misurata,” NATO spokesperson Carmen Romero said in Brussels.
As part of these efforts, NATO said it would form a “sea bridge” to Misurata to rush aid and supplies after it was cut off by Gaddafi's forces.
“We are going to open a sea corridor to the city to let Libyan rebels ship aid and supplies to the besieged Mediterranean port city and at no moment Gaddafi's military forces will be able to stop this,” France's Defence Minister Gerard Longuet announced.
The step would bring NATO's naval forces close to Gaddafi's forces which have cut off Misurata. NATO also announced that it would step up the pace of air strikes on Libya despite the use of civilians as human shields by Gaddafi's forces.
The NATO's announcement of stepping up its military action came after Yunis NATO of inaction as Gaddafi's forces continued their 40-day long artillery bombardment of civilians in the western city.
“I would like to say to you people that NATO did not provide to us what we need,” he said.
He charged that NATO was enforcing UN sanctioned no-fly zone selectively and had barred the rebels from using MiG fighters to give cover to their fighters.
Yunis, a former Interior Minister, said that rebels had made a number of MiG fighters serviceable and wanted to use them to pound Gaddafi's forces.
His strong lashing came after Gaddafi's forces had almost pushed out rebels from most of the key cities.
“NATO should be with us or we will ask the (Transitional National Council, the rebel government) to raise this matter before the Security Council. This is a dangerous situation,” Yunis warned.
Earlier today, the rebels moved out of the oil town of Brega and headed east towards Ajdabiya in the face of renewed offensive by Gaddafi's troops.
Buoyed by his huge successes against rebels, Gaddafi offered to hold talks with opposition if the insurgents disarmed.
Gaddafi's son Seif ul-Islam told BBC that if the foreign interference ended, he and his father were ready to move Libya towards democratic elections under an elected Prime Minister with Gaddafi remaining only in a figure head role.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has ruled out sending ground troops to Libya and reiterated that any change in the leadership would be determined by the people of the country and not by any external forces.
“The President from the very outset of this operation had made clear that we were going to conduct this without putting US military boots on the ground. That has been the starting point. It remains the guiding principle here,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters in Washington.
“The fact of the matter is, US military boots on the ground are prohibited by the President of the US in Libya. That is just the way it is, and I don't foresee that changing. Obviously the commander-in-chief is within his right to adjust to situations, but as the (Defence) Secretary told the Congress last week, he does not anticipate that changing,” he said.
With regards to whether or not other assistance is being contemplated for the rebels in Libya, no decision has been made yet on arming the rebels.
“Right now, the focus, primarily in terms of the interagency discussions on this matter, is what kinds of support we could provide in a nonlethal respect for the rebels in Libya. But that's a complicated discussion. It's an ongoing discussion. But I think that's where the focus is, not on reconsidering the boots-on-the-ground decision,” he said.
A senior US diplomat arrived in the rebel-controlled Benghazi to hold talks with members of the Transitional National Council.
“Our representative (Chris Stevens) has arrived in Benghazi and he's meeting with members of the Transitional National Council. So he did arrive,” Mark Toner, State Department spokesman said.
However, the US so far has not taken any decision on recognising the Transitional National Council (TNC), he said.
While in Benghazi, Stevens would discuss a number of issues, humanitarian assistance.
“We'll also talk with Transitional National Council about their democratic aspirations, their commitment to universal human rights,” Toner said.
“It's partly he's trying to get to know the leadership of the TNC, talk about both what kind civil society and political structures they want to create, and also talk about what kind of practical assistance, non-lethal assistance, we can provide them,” he said. PTI