Bloomberg News

Libya Rebels on Front Lines Ask When NATO Will Help Them Advance

June 08, 2011

(See EXTRA and MET for more on Middle East unrest.)

June 9 (Bloomberg) -- Skirmishing with Libyan government forces is taking a toll on rebel fighters at Dafniya, on the eastern front line near Misrata, as NATO warplanes pummel the capital, Tripoli.

Forces loyal to leader Muammar Qaddafi, who have pulled back from Misrata, fire mortars and GRAD rockets in a daily exchange with the rebels at Dafniya. Accompanying the bombardment is an infantry attack.

Qaddafi’s loyalists lack both the numbers and motivation to sustain a ground offensive, so they usually retreat, with the rebel forces chasing after them. By nightfall, the rebels are ordered to give up the ground they have captured.

NATO has instructed rebel units to remain behind a so- called Red Line, the current front line, to allow NATO aircraft freedom to attack beyond it without fear of hitting friendly troops, said local brigade commander Feraz Swehli, great- grandson of Ramadan al-Swehli, a famous Misrata resistance fighter who liberated the city from Italian occupation.

The result is little change on the ground as rebel casualties mount.

Dr. Mohammed Teeka, 27, one of the emergency medics with rebel forces at Dafniya, sees wounded rebels at a field hospital a few miles from the front.

Blood on Floor

On one recent morning, he tried and failed to revive a bearded fighter whose blood leaked from a bandaged head wound onto the concrete floor of the former farm warehouse. Doctors clustered around, irritated that an old heart monitor machine had stopped working, while one doctor kneeled astride the patient and tried to revive him with heart massage.

Afterwards, Teeka, wearing green scrubs and sipping hot sweet tea outside the hospital, asked where are the British Apache and French Tiger helicopters promised to help turn the tide. “Why no NATO?” he said.

He is not the only rebel asking: On the front line itself, inside a mosque who’s walls reverberate to chains of mortar shells landing outside, rebel soldiers and medics are equally baffled. Since the NATO helicopters have yet to make an appearance on the Misrata front, the rebels ask why they are being told by their leadership to respect the Red Line.

“The enemy infantry we can handle,” said Swehli. “But we need NATO to take care of the GRADs and tanks.”

Libyan forces yesterday shelled the outskirts of Misrata, the largest rebel-held city in western Libya. Ten rebel fighters were killed and 26 injured, according to information posted at Misrata’s central Hikma hospital.

The reasons why NATO is staying out of the battles raging on Misrata’s front line stem from the UN Security Council resolution passed in March, which authorized NATO to use “all necessary means” to protect civilian lives.

UN Mandate

Under its mandate, NATO can bomb to safeguard civilians, while bombing to protect armed rebel forces is a less clear matter.

Swehli said that NATO sometimes brings in air support on his front lines, but it is patchy. “All requests have to go through our commanders in Benghazi, so it takes time,” he said “We have no direct contact with NATO.”

The rebels note they face a dilemma. If they fall back from the front line, thereby putting Misrata in range of Gaddafi’s artillery, NATO may bomb to protect civilians there. But if they hold the front line outside artillery range, the alliance seems disinclined to help them advance.

Contact Group Meeting

NATO this week has intensified its bombing of military targets in Tripoli, largely destroying Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound, in a stated effort to pressure the regime. NATO’s chief, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, yesterday in Brussels cited “clear progress” in ending Qaddafi’s 42-year rule and said the alliance will continue its air campaign for as long as necessary.

Foreign ministers from the 22-nation Libya Contact Group meet today in Abu Dhabi to discuss the conflict and the outlook for Libya after Qaddafi.

--Editors: Terry Atlas, Steven Komarow

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Stephen in Dafniya, Libya, at chrisstephen2005@yahoo.co.uk;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net


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