TRIPOLI, (Reuters) – Military deadlock in Libya has exposed growing international rifts, with critics of NATO bombing calling it another case of the West trying to overthrow a regime by stretching the terms of a U.N. resolution.
“Is there a lack of such crooked regimes in the world?” Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin asked Tuesday. “Are we going to bomb everywhere and conduct missile strikes?”
And a senior African Union official accused Western nations of undermining an AU peace plan that would not require the departure from power of Muammar Gaddafi.
British and U.S. officials met Tuesday to discuss how to step up military pressure on Gaddafi, as the Libyan leader’s army fought fierce clashes with rebels in besieged Misrata.
More than a month of British and French-led NATO air strikes have failed to dislodge Gaddafi or bring major gains for anti-government rebels who hold much of east Libya.
Warplanes flattened a building in Gaddafi’s compound on Monday in what his officials called an assassination attempt. NATO denies trying to kill him.
British Defense Secretary Liam Fox and Britain’s Chief of the Defense Staff General David Richards met U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington.
After the Washington talks, Gates said the coalition was not targeting Gaddafi specifically. Fox said there had been some “momentum” in the Libyan conflict in recent days.
Western forces have run out of obvious targets to bomb, say analysts, without achieving a clear military result.
Putin accused the coalition of exceeding its U.N. mandate to protect civilians.
“They said they didn’t want to kill Gaddafi. Now some officials say, yes, we are trying to kill Gaddafi,” he said during a visit to Denmark. “Who permitted this, was there any trial? Who took on the right to execute this man?
Libya’s state news agency Jana said Tripoli had urged Russia to call an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow has a permanent seat. A Russian official said no instructions for such a call had been made.
The war has split the oil producer, Africa’s fourth biggest, into a government-held western area round the capital Tripoli and an eastern region held by disorganized but dedicated rebels.
Troops loyal to Gaddafi have extended their campaign to pound Berber towns in the Western Mountains while battling rebels around the port of Misrata, apparently with the aim of severing the western city from its one lifeline, the sea.
At least one migrant from Niger was reported killed and 10-20 injured in the shelling of the port, the International Organization for Migration said.
They were among at least 1,500 migrants, many from Niger, awaiting evacuation. An IOM-chartered rescue ship has been forced by the fighting to wait offshore.
While world attention has been on Misrata and battles further east, fighting has intensified in the Western Mountains.
Flanked by deserts, the mountain range stretches west for more than 150 km (90 miles) from south of Tripoli to Tunisia, and is inhabited by Berbers who are ethnically distinct from most Libyans and long viewed with suspicion by the government.
Western Mountains towns joined the wider revolt against Gaddafi’s rule in February. They fear they are now paying the price while NATO efforts to whittle down Gaddafi’s forces from the air are concentrated on bigger population centers.
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said 30,000 people had fled the Western Mountains for Tunisia in the past three weeks, leaving the towns of Nalut and Wazin virtually deserted.
Around the coastal town of Brega to the east, the Libyan army reinforced its positions and dug in its long-range missile batteries to conceal them from attacks by NATO planes, a rebel army officer said Tuesday.
ADDIS ABABA TALKS
The African Union has been holding separate talks with Libyan Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi and rebel representatives in Addis Ababa.
The rebels have rebuffed an AU plan because it does not entail Gaddafi’s departure. The United States, Britain and France also say there can be no political solution until the Libyan leader leaves power.
Ramtane Lamamra, AU’s Commissioner for Peace and Security, accused the West of failing to support the Ethiopian-based bloc’s own peace proposal. “Attempts have been made to marginalize an African solution to the crisis,” he said.
Obeidi said Tripoli wanted a special AU meeting “to identify the ways that enable our continent to mobilize capabilities to face the external forces which aggress against us.”
A representative of the rebels at the Addis Ababa talks said they would continue to engage with the AU to “find a solution that will lead to the aspirations of the Libyan people, including the departure of the regime.”
“How can you have peace with him (Gaddafi) around? He is not a man of peace, he is a man of war and violence,” Al Zubedi Abdalla, a representative of Libya’s opposition, told reporters after talks with AU officials.
The AU proposal is gathering momentum, Libya’s deputy foreign minister said. A meeting of all Libyan tribes would be held before the end of next month to decide “whether they want to have a monarchy system or republic … system,” Khaled Kaim told reporters in Tripoli. “It is up to the Libyans.”
A delegation of Libyan officials is also in Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez said Tuesday.
“Who gave them the right to do this? It’s crazy,” Chavez said of NATO military strikes. “Because they don’t like the leader Gaddafi, because they want to take Libya’s oil and water … they are chucking bombs everywhere.”
“A delegation sent by Gaddafi has arrived in Venezuela and we are seeking a peaceful outcome,” he said during a speech.