BENGHAZI, (Reuters) – Rebels waging a drawn-out war to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi have run out of money, their oil chief said on Saturday, and he accused the West of not meeting promises to deliver urgent financial aid.
His appeal came as fissures were appearing in the NATO alliance over its 3-month bombing campaign against Gaddafi, with some allies showing mission fatigue and the United States accusing some European allies of failing to pull their weight.
The rebels have made important gains on various fronts the past few weeks, but remain far from seizing their ultimate prize — Gaddafi’s powerbase of Tripoli and its hinterland, despite air support from the world’s most powerful military alliance.
At least eight rebels were killed in fighting near the northwestern town of Nalut, a rebel source said, as insurgents seek to press an advance into Gaddafi’s heartland that has proven slow despite weeks of NATO air strikes on their behalf.
The gun battles in the village of Takut, just outside Nalut, on Saturday followed exchanges of heavy artillery fire near the city of Zlitan, on the other side of Tripoli, as the insurgents tried to take government-held territory to the east of the city.
The remarks by rebel oil chief Ali Tarhouni in an interview with Reuters highlighted the insurgents’ struggle to make ends meet with war damage to energy infrastructure in their eastern territory having knocked out oil production there.
Western powers are assisting the rebels through daily air strikes on forces loyal to Gaddafi and have pledged to expand aid by tapping into Libyan assets frozen abroad.
But Tarhouni, also the insurgents’ finance minister, said there had been no follow-through on such promises.
“RUNNING OUT OF EVERYTHING”
“We don’t have any (cash). We are running out of everything. It’s a complete failure. Either they (Western nations) don’t understand or they don’t care. Nothing has materialised yet. And I really mean nothing,” he said in the main rebel city Benghazi.
“All of these people we talk to, all of these countries, at all these conferences, with their great grand speeches — we appreciate (them) from the political side, but in terms of finances they are a complete failure. Our people are dying.”
The economy in eastern Libya, where much of the oil that once made Libya a major OPEC exporter came from, is in shambles. Rebel leaders are struggling to find cash to pay for military operations and salaries in a society where, thanks to the legacy of Gaddafi’s centralised rule, most people rely on state wages.
The European Union has pledged financial infusions and the United States, which took a leading role in securing a U.N.-backed no-fly zone over Libya, has promised more aid and offers of loans to keep the rebels afloat.
Asked why he thought it was taking Western nations so long, Tarhouni said: “No idea. … I am tired of asking them.”
He had earlier estimated the rebels were spending up to 100 million Libyan dinars ($86 million) per day.
“I don’t expect us to produce oil any time soon. The refineries have no crude oil, so they are not working,” he said.
“People died for this revolution and are still dying. We will find a way (to raise money). One thing is for sure: We will never give up.”
FIGHTING NEAR NALUT, MISRATA
The rebels are trying to seal off coastal Tripoli from the east, west and south but their advances have been halting and weeks of NATO strikes pounding Gaddafi’s compound and other targets have failed to bring down his 41-year-old rule.
“The battles started yesterday and are continuing today in Takut,” a fighter, Abou Saa, told Reuters from Nalut, in arid hills some 200 km (125 miles) southwest of Tripoli.
“The revolutionaries destroyed six armoured vehicles and killed more than 45 enemy soldiers. The rebels surrounded Gaddafi’s forces, who are holed up in a compound (in Takut).”
He added that 13 rebels were wounded in the fighting.
The report could not be immediately verified due to a lack of independent media access to the area and there was no immediate comment from Gaddafi’s side.
On the other side of Tripoli, rebels are advancing towards Zlitan, 160 km (100 miles) to the east and the next major town on the Mediterranean coastal road to the capital from the rebel stronghold of Misrata. Capturing it would greatly advance the rebels’ strategy of cutting off Tripoli from all sides.
A rebel spokesman in Misrata called Mohammed said: “there were skirmishes this morning in the southwest of Misrata in Tawargha,” but did not give further details.
The rebels have said they will not attack Zlitan because of local tribal sensitivities, but are recruiting fighters from the town and waiting for the residents to rise up against Gaddafi.
Rebels are also fighting on another front: in the east near the oil port of Brega, 800 km (500 miles) east of Tripoli.
GADDAFI DEFIANT AS EVER
NATO planes resumed bombardments of Tripoli on Friday and there were more explosions on Saturday. State news agency Jana said another bombing had struck the Karama district of Tripoli on Saturday morning but this could not be confirmed immediately.
“The alliance will be defeated,” Gaddafi said in an audio speech on Libyan television on Friday. “We are in our country and we are determined to stay and defend it.”
A NATO military spokesman, Wing Commander Mike Bracken, said in a briefing that west of Misrata “for the time being pro-Gaddafi forces appear unable to strongly counter the anti-Gaddafi forces’ incremental advances.”
Libyan Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi Ali Al-Mahmoudi told a late night news conference that Libya would appeal to the U.N. Security Council for a halt to NATO’s aerial bombings.
He said one air strike had hit the Al Fateh University, but journalists visiting it on Saturday saw only one big hole in its walls, with no signs of burn marks from an explosion.
“It has become clear to us that NATO has moved on to deliberately target civilian buildings,” Al-Mahmoudi said.
Libyan state-owned Jamahiriya TV said later the prime minister had called U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to call for an extraordinary session to investigate.
A NATO spokeswoman called Libyan reports of civilian casualties caused by air strikes “pure propaganda.”
“It is Gaddafi and his regime that have been systematically and brutally attacking the Libyan people…, shelling cities, mining ports and using mosques and children’s parks as shields,” said alliance spokeswoman Oana Lungescu.
Juma Ibrahim, a rebel spokesman in the Western Mountains town of Zintan, said Gaddafi loyalists were besieging the world heritage-listed old city of Ghadames, some 600 km southwest of the capital on the Tunisian and Algerian borders.
“(They) … have destroyed some Islamic historic ruins … palaces and forts located in the city’s old quarter,” he said.