|McCain tells Al Jazeera rebels are 'heroes' with no links to al-Qaeda, in contrast to what some critics have suggested
Senator John McCain, one of the strongest proponents in the US congress of American military intervention in Libya, has called on Washington to recognise Libyan rebels' transitional council as the true voice of the Libyan people and transfer frozen assets to them.
McCain also called for NATO to step up its air campaign and said Western allies should provide rebels with training, weapons and command-and-control activities to help overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, Libya's longtime leader.
"I would encourage every nation, especially the United States, to recognise the transitional national council as the legitimate voice of the Libyan people," McCain said, speaking to reporters in the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi on Friday.
"They have earned this right and Gaddafi has forfeited it by waging war on his own people."
McCain, believed to be the most senior Western politician, and the first from the United States, to visit Benghazi since the conflict broke out in late February, made the trip to Libya on his own.
An aide said he met rebel leaders including finance chief Ali Tarhouni and armed forces head Abdel Fattah Younes.
McCain also said he was worried the battle between Gaddafi's troops and rebel forces was reaching a stalemate that could "open the door to radical Islamic fundamentalism".
Rebels 'my heroes'
The US senator's arrival came close on the heels of the US president approving the use of armed drones in Libya against ground forces for the first time since America handed over the military operation to NATO.
Al Jazeera's Mike Hanna, reporting from Benghazi, says broader recognition "gives the transitional council a legal standing which it does not at the moment enjoy" along with "extra finance" and "greater political authenticity within Libya itself".
"If the council is recognised as the authentic voice of the Libyan people, then they could receive those funds that have been frozen abroad from the Gaddafi regime," he said.
McCain also denied concerns about the possibility of extremist or al-Qaeda elements fighting alongside the pro-democracy forces, telling Al Jazeera "they [opposition fighters] are my heroes".
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US military's joint chiefs of staff, offered a similar assessment.
"We're watchful of it, mindful of it and I just haven't seen much of it at all. In fact, I've seen no al-Qaeda representation there at all," he said during a visit to the Iraqi capital Baghdad.
Mullen acknowledged that the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which waged a failed armed uprising against Gaddafi's rule in the 1990s, had "stirred a little bit".
He said air strikes had hobbled Libyan forces, but admitted the conflict was moving into "stalemate" as Gaddafi's troops pressed on with their punishing siege in the western city of Misurata.
The trip to Benghazi by McCain, the senior Republican on the US senate's Armed Services Committee, is the highest yet by an American official to the opposition-held east.
The Libyan pro-democracy forces have been trying since mid-February to end Gaddafi's 41-year-old rule but have struggled against his more experienced and better equipped forces.
The first armed drone mission since Barack Obama's go-ahead was flown on Thursday, but the aircraft, armed with Hellfire missiles, turned back due to poor weather conditions without firing any of its munitions.
Marine General James Cartwright, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the drones can help counteract the pro-Gaddafi forces' tactic of travelling in civilian vehicles that make it difficult to distinguish them from rebel forces.
"What they will bring that is unique to the conflict is their ability to get down lower, therefore to be able to get better visibility on targets that have started to dig themselves into defensive positions," Cartwright said.
'No mission creep'
Predator drones have routinely been flying surveillance missions in Libya, Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, said at a Pentagon briefing on Thursday.
He said the US will provide up to two 24-hour combat air patrols each day by the unmanned Predators.
Gates rejected the notion that the approval of drone strikes means that the US will get pulled slowly back into a more active combat role, despite Obama's vow merely to provide support for NATO.
US forces played a lead role in the early days of the conflict, launching an onslaught of cruise missiles and bombs against Gaddafi's surface-to-air missile sites and advancing government troops.
With American forces stretched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the humanitarian operations in Japan, the Pentagon turned the mission over to NATO, saying it would only carry out limited airstrikes to take out air defences.
The US, said Obama, no longer would do airstrikes to protect the civilian population.
Gates said that bringing in the Predators will give NATO a critical capability that the US uniquely can contribute.
US senator's trip comes as fierce fighting continues to rage in the besieged western city of Misurata
"I think this is a very limited additional role on our part, but it does provide some additional capabilities to NATO," Gates said.
"And if we can make a modest contribution with these armed Predators, we'll do it. ... I don't think any of us see that as mission creep."
He said Obama has been clear that there will be no US boots on the ground, and the main strike role would belong to the allies.
Gates, who publicly expressed scepticism about getting involved militarily in Libya before Obama endorsed the limited intervention, said "the real work" of overthrowing Gaddafi will have to be done by the Libyans themselves.
While he acknowledged the conflict "is likely to take a while," Gates also said the continuing sanctions, arms embargo and NATO-led offensive have weakened Gaddafi's military and eaten away at his supplies and cash.
Over the long term, Gates said, that will hurt Gaddafi's ability to strike back at opposition forces, if they should rise up again in other cities.
At the same time, however, Gates said the administration's decision to provide $25m in non-lethal military assistance to the rebels did not signal a deeper US commitment to anti-Gaddafi forces whose make-up, objectives and motives still are not fully understood in Washington.
The aid, he added, is not high-end military equipment but rather a hodge-podge of things like uniforms and canteens.
Asked how long he believes it will take the NATO-led air campaign to succeed, Gates replied: "The honest answer to that is, nobody knows."
Deaths in NATO attacks
Fighting between forces loyal to Gaddafi and opposition rebels have continued to rage in Libya.
Libyan state television said on Friday that nine people were killed overnight in a NATO bombardment of Sirte, Gaddafi's home town.
|Casualties are on the rise as Gaddafi and rebel
forces battle it out across Libya [GALLO/GETTY]
The news bulletin of Al-Jamahiriya said some of those killed were employees of the state water utility who were working during the attack.
Earlier, state television said NATO forces struck the Khallat al-Farjan area of the capital Tripoli, killing seven people and wounding 18 others.
But NATO denied that the raid had killed civilians, saying the target was a command and control bunker in a military compound.
Casualties are on the rise as Gaddafi and rebel forces battle it out on the streets of the besieged city of Misurata, amid calls by the UN chief to "stop fighting".
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, urged Libyan authorities on Thursday to "stop fighting and stop killing people" and said the world body's priority was to secure a ceasefire.
"At this time our priority is to bring about a verifiable and effective ceasefire, and then we can expand our humanitarian assistance, and we are going to engage in political dialogue," he said during an official visit to Moscow, Russia's capital.