NATO vows to protect Misurata amid criticism

Military alliance says besieged town is now its top priority after rebels accuse bloc of failing to protect civilians.

    Opposition forces in Libya are fighting to end the 42-year rule of Muammar Gaddafi and his government [AFP]

    NATO has vowed to protect Libya's civilian population and give priority to the besieged city of Misurata, a day after rebel fighters accused the military alliance of acting too slowly.

    "We have a clear mandate and we will do everything to protect the civilians of Misurata," Carmen Romero, deputy spokeswoman for NATO, said on Wednesday, adding "Misurata is our number one priority".

    Oana Lungescu, NATO'S spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that the alliance was enforcing the UN mandate to protect civilians against the threat of attack.

    "In the last six days we've flown over 1,000 sorties and out of those over 400 were strike sorties.

    "Yesterday we flew 155 sorties, today almost 200 are planned. So we are taking our mandate very seriously indeed, we've been striking tanks around Misurata and we've also been striking armoured vehicles, air defence systems, rocket launchers around Misurata, Ras Lanuf and Brega," she said.

    Britain also said it would move four Typhoon fighter jets currently being used to police the no-fly zone to a ground attack role in Libya in response to criticism that forces were not protecting civilians.

    Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, said he would discuss with NATO the situation in Misurata, where residents have been under siege from forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi for the last 40 days.

    "Misurata is in a situation which cannot continue and I am going to discuss it in a few hours time with the secretary general of NATO," he told France Info radio.

    But he also said that military operations in the country were becoming more complicated as pro-Gaddafi forces adopted tactics that raised the risk of civilian casualties.

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    "We've formally requested that there be no collateral damage for the civilian population," he said. "That obviously makes operations more difficult."

    Brigadier General Mark van Uhm, NATO's chief of allied operations, previously said that human shields were being used in Misurata to prevent the coalition from identifying targets.

    He added that Gaddafi's troops have been adjusting their tactics to deal with the threat from coalition airstrikes, travelling in trucks and light vehicles to the front line and hiding their tanks and armoured vehicles from sight.

    'More airstrikes needed'

    Admiral Edouard Guillard, the head of France's armed forces, said the slow pace of NATO operations was frustrating, but that "protecting civilians means not firing anywhere near them".

    On Tuesday Abdul Fatah Younis, the head of the Libyan opposition's armed forces, said the military alliance had "disappointed" them by being too slow to hit targets, such as pro-Gaddafi convoys, that would help protect civilians.

    "Civilians are dying daily because of lack of food or milk, even children are dying. Even by bombing. If NATO waits for another week, it will be a crime that NATO will have to carry. What is NATO doing? It is shelling some defined areas only," he said.

    "When a large force of tanks, and even artillery, is on its way to Benghazi, Ajdabiya or Brega, we always inform NATO straight away. Because we don't have such weapons. NATO's reaction is very slow. By the time the information reaches from one official to another until it reaches the field commander, it takes hours.

    Hoda Abdel Hamid, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Benghazi, said rebels were expecting more airstrikes.

    "They say that when France and the US were in charge there were more airstrikes, they say especially on the frontline that when those airstrikes happened it helped them to make their push towards the west.

    "Now they've been retreating badly towards the east, nearly at their starting point," she said.

    "They say the NATO airstrikes are needed in the west of the country because there's an understanding here in the east that they can't continue this uprising alone."

    She added that there were fears that if the situation continued the country could be divided between the east and the west.

    Supply lines reopened

    Doctors said last week that 200 people had been killed in Misurata since the uprising began on February 17, a figure that is likely to have risen in recent days.

    Meanwhile, Gerard Longuet, the French defence minister, said on Wednesday that Libyan rebels would now be able to supply the city by sea.

    "We are going to ensure that... aid comes from [the rebel stronghold] Benghazi and that at no moment Gaddafi's military forces will be able to stop this," he told France Inter radio.

    "Previously, the interpretation of the embargo meant that no boats could supply any towns," he said.

    "Today, we have reopened [marine] traffic at Tobruk and Benghazi, and so boats from Benghazi will be able ... to supply Misrata, because the coalition will prevent any action by the Gaddafi navy," he said.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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