BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – NATO air strikes in Libya are being hampered by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces hunkering down near civilians, France said on Wednesday after rebels accused the West of doing little to stop his siege of Misrata.
NATO officials have said their six-day-old air campaign is now focused on Misrata, under daily shelling and sniper fire as the only big population center in western Libya where a popular revolt against Gaddafi has not been suppressed.
The head of Libya’s rebel army accused NATO of being too slow to order air strikes to protect civilians, allowing Gaddafi’s forces to slaughter the people of Misrata.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said NATO operations were becoming more complicated in having to deal with the fact that Gaddafi’s forces had frequently deployed close to civilians as tactical protection against air strikes.
“We’ve formally requested that there be no collateral damage for the civilian population,” he told France Info radio. “That obviously makes operations more difficult.”
He said he would address the issue shortly with the head of NATO, adding that Misrata’s ordeal “cannot go on” but that “the situation is unclear. There is a risk of getting bogged down.”
Fattah Younes, head of the rebel forces, said in their eastern stronghold city of Benghazi that NATO had let them down.
“NATO blesses us every now and then with a bombardment here and there, and is letting the people of Misrata die every day. NATO has disappointed us,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
FRUSTRATION AT GADDAFI TACTICS
Echoing Juppe, the head of France’s armed forces voiced frustration at the pace of NATO operations.
“I would like things to go faster, but as you are well aware, protecting civilians means not firing anywhere near them,” Admiral Edouard Guillaud said in an interview on Europe 1 radio. “That is precisely the difficulty.”
He said NATO forces were concentrating their firepower on Misrata where rebels were holding the port zone, while trying to pre-empt any transport of weapons toward Tripoli, the capital and Gaddafi’s power base.
Warplanes from Arab Gulf states Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were taking part in these missions, Guillaud added.
NATO now spearheads air strikes targeting Gaddafi’s military infrastructure and polices a no-fly zone and an arms embargo, but is wary of hitting civilians in the North African state.
The alliance has denied that the pace of air strikes has abated since it took over the task from a smaller big power coalition of the United States, Britain and France on March 31.
“The assessment is that we have taken out 30 percent of the military capacity of Gaddafi,” Brigadier General Mark van Uhm, a senior NATO staff officer, said in Brussels.
But van Uhm said Gaddafi was using human shields and hiding his armor in populated areas, curbing NATO’s ability to strike. “When human beings are used as shields we don’t engage.”
Younes said the area where Gaddafi troops were did not include civilians, and Abdelsalam in Misrata agreed:
“NATO says Gaddafi’s forces are hiding among civilians. But we tell them that there are no civilians left in the areas where the Gaddafi forces are positioned. We urge them to destroy civilian property to take out the snipers and armed gangs.”
Younes said rebels were considering referring what he said was slow decision-making by NATO to the U.N. Security Council which authorized its mission. “NATO has become our problem.”
NATO-led air power is maintaining a rough military balance in Libya, preventing Gaddafi forces from overrunning the rag-tag band of rebels who dominate eastern Libya — but not forceful enough for the insurgents to advance on the capital Tripoli.
“The reaction of NATO is very slow. One official calls another and then from the official to the head of NATO and from the head of NATO to the field commander. This takes eight hours,” said Younes, a former interior minister in Gaddafi’s administration who defected, adding:
“Misrata is being subjected to a full extermination.”
A rebel spokesman said Gaddafi’s forces bombarded Misrata again on Tuesday. “Misrata was shelled with tank fire, artillery and mortars,” the rebel, called Abdelsalam, told Reuters, adding: “Unfortunately NATO operations have not been effective in Misrata. Civilians are dying every day.”
Another insurgent in Misrata, called Nasser, said two people had been killed and 26 injured in mortar attacks on Tuesday.
A stalemate on the front line of fighting in eastern Libya, defections from Gaddafi’s circle and the plight of civilians caught in fighting or facing food and fuel shortages has prompted a flurry of diplomacy to find a solution to the civil war in the large, oil-producing desert country.
A U.S. envoy has arrived in Benghazi to get to know the opposition and discuss possible financial and humanitarian assistance, a U.S. official said. The visit by Chris Stevens, former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, reflects a U.S. effort to deepen contacts with the rebels, whose uprising began on February 15.
Turkey, whose status as a secular Muslim state positioned between Europe and the Middle East gives it unusual mediating potential, also sent a special envoy to Benghazi for talks with the opposition, its foreign minister said.
Diplomatic efforts to end the conflict have failed to make progress with the rebels adamant that Libya’s leader for the past 41 years leave and the government side offering concessions, but insisting Gaddafi stay in power.