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July 6 (Bloomberg) -- Libyan rebel forces in besieged Misrata launched their biggest attack in more than a month to try to break through the government troops entrenched around the coastal city, as the head of the NATO alliance said that the “momentum is against” regime leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Rebel infantry, aided by mortars, advanced across no-man’s land and seized ground from pro-Qaddafi forces. Previous attempts have failed to break through government lines close to the town of Zlitan, west of Misrata.
Rebel leaders said NATO conducted air strikes against government forces around Zlitan in the past two weeks, and has used naval gunfire. While NATO jets circled the area today, there was no sign of their direct engagement in the battle.
By evening, rebels said they were close to Zlitan. “We are three kilometers away,” said a rebel commander, Hassan Duen. Asked if they would go on to try and capture Zlitan, he nodded affirmatively.
“For Qaddafi, it is game over,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters today at a briefing in Brussels. “Momentum is against Qaddafi; his economic strength to wage war against his country is declining.”
The attempt by Qaddafi to retake rebel territory has “fallen apart” as opposition forces capture key cities and the alliance maintains its air and sea campaign, Rasmussen said.
Government forces demonstrated they still maintain firepower around Misrata. Gunfire and impacts from government Grad rockets began in the early morning and continued in the west of the Misrata pocket throughout the day.
Rebels said they had overrun a series of checkpoints and camps in the no-man’s land between the western edge of the pocket and Zlitan, a 30 kilometer gap.
Misrata’s Hikma hospital was full and by late afternoon it had recorded 13 dead fighters with 24 wounded.
The rebels have launched several offensives across no-man’s land in recent weeks, each time stopping short of Zlitan and its main belt of government defenses.
Rasmussen said on July 4 that NATO would continue its offensive in Libya until it meets the goals sanctioned by a United Nations resolution that authorized military action to protect civilians.
NATO is under pressure internally as some member governments face political opposition to the conflict. Norway announced June 10 that it was withdrawing four of six fighter jets and the rest by August 1.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has set three objectives for Libya: a complete halt to attacks on civilians by government forces; the withdrawal of those troops to barracks; and access to humanitarian aid for the people of Libya, Rasmussen said then.
Qaddafi’s “capability to attack civilians has been considerably decreased and we consider that a success of our operation,” Rasmussen said today.
--Editors: Terry Atlas, Steven Komarow
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