TRIPOLI, (Reuters) – Libya accused Britain of damaging an oil pipeline in an air strike, hours after rebels said government attacks had halted production of oil they hope to sell to finance their uprising.
“British warplanes have attacked, have carried out an air strike against the Sarir oilfield which killed three oilfield guards and other employees at the field were also injured,” Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim told reporters.
There was no immediate comment from the Ministry of Defence or from NATO, which is coordinating air strikes to protect civilians in Libya from Muammar Gaddafi’s forces.
Kaim said the strike damaged a pipeline connecting the oilfields to the Marsa el Hariga port. “There is no doubt this aggression … is against international law and is not covered by the U.N. resolution,” he said.
Any damage to a pipeline leading to Marsa el Hariga is likely to cause more harm to the rebels than to Gaddafi.
The Liberian-registered tanker Equator sailed from the port, near Tobruk, on Wednesday, apparently with the first cargo of crude sold by rebels since their uprising began in February.
A rebel spokesman had said Gaddafi artillery hit rebel-held oilfields in Misla and the Waha area on Tuesday and Wednesday, halting production.
No one on the rebel side was immediately available for comment on the latest allegations from Tripoli, which insisted the oil fields were under its control.
The rebels regained ground around the oil port of Brega on Wednesday but repeated accusations NATO was not doing enough to help them as Gaddafi’s forces unleashed yet more mortar rounds, tank fire and artillery shells on the western city of Misrata.
A French minister said NATO air strikes in Libya risked getting “bogged down” and a top U.S. official warned U.S. lawmakers Libyan agents could be inside the United States and might try to launch retaliatory attacks.
“We want to make certain that we’ve identified these individuals to ensure no harm comes from them, knowing they may well have been associated with the Gaddafi regime,” FBI Director Robert Mueller said.
Gaddafi himself appealed for a halt in the air campaign in a rambling three-page letter to U.S. President Barack Obama bluntly dismissed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“Mr. Gaddafi knows what he must do,” Clinton told a news conference with Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, reiterating calls for a cease-fire, the withdrawal of his forces from cities they have stormed and his departure from Libya.
Misrata, Libya’s third city, rose up with other towns against Muammar Gaddafi’s rule in mid-February, and is now under siege by government troops after a violent crackdown put an end to most protests elsewhere in the west of the country.
Rebels who control eastern Libya are angry at what they perceive to be a scaling back of operations since NATO took over an air campaign, after an early onslaught led by the United States, France and Britain tilted the war in their favour.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Gaddafi forces were making it harder for alliance pilots to distinguish them from civilians by hunkering down in populated areas. “The situation is unclear. There is a risk of getting bogged down,” he said.
Juppe told France Info radio he would address the issue of tactics shortly with the head of NATO, adding Misrata’s ordeal “cannot go on”. NATO has accused Gaddafi of using human shields to make targeting harder for its warplanes.
Civil war in the vast North African desert oil producer ignited in February when Gaddafi tried to crush pro-democracy rallies against his 41-year rule inspired by uprisings that have toppled or endangered other autocrats across the Arab world.
The head of Libya’s rebel army has condemned NATO for its slowness in ordering air strikes to protect civilians, saying the alliance was “letting the people of Misrata die every day”.
Juppe said: “We’ve formally requested that there be no collateral damage for the civilian population … That obviously makes operations more difficult.”
But General Abdel Fattah Younes was adamant that Gaddafi was conducting massacres. “Day by day people are dying. Hundreds of families are being wiped off the face of the earth. Patience has its limits,” he said.
Asked whether he found NATO’s argument that it is trying to prevent civilian casualties convincing he said:
“No, it’s not convincing at all. NATO has other means. I requested there be combat helicopters like Apaches and Tigers. These damage tanks and armoured vehicles with exact precision without harming civilians.”
NATO ON THE DEFENSIVE
Libyan officials deny attacking civilians in Misrata, saying they are fighting armed gangs linked to al Qaeda. Accounts from Misrata cannot be independently verified as Libyan authorities are not allowing journalists to report freely from there.
Rebel criticism has put the Western military alliance on the defensive, particularly over Misrata. Spokeswoman Carmen Romero said that “the pace of our operations continues unabated. The ambition and the position of our strikes has not changed”.
NATO air strikes are targeting Gaddafi’s military infrastructure but only to protect civilians, not to provide close air support for rebels, much to their dismay, as part of a no-fly zone mandated by the U.N. Security Council.
Relieving the siege of Misrata was a NATO priority but alliance officials conceded that Gaddafi’s army was proving a resourceful and elusive target.
“The situation on the ground is constantly evolving. Gaddafi’s forces are changing tactics, using civilian vehicles, hiding tanks in cities such as Misrata and using human shields to hide behind,” Romero told reporters in Brussels.
Misrata on Wednesday faced another heavy bombardment.
“There was firing on three fronts today, the port in the east, the centre around Tripoli street and the west of the city. Mortars, tank fire, and artillery were used to shell those areas,” rebel Abdelsalam said by telephone.
“NATO needs to either launch a serious operation to take out all the heavy armoured vehicles, including tanks … If they don’t want to do this, they should provide us with weapons to do it ourselves.”
Meanwhile, living conditions in Misrata worsened.
“People are panicking, especially women, children and old people. Most people left their homes for safer areas and found refuge with other families,” Abdelsalam said, adding:
“No fruit and vegetables have been available in Misrata for over 25 days, bread is also difficult to find. People are scared to go out because of the snipers and the indiscriminate shelling. The upper-hand is still with Gaddafi’s forces.”