Libyan rebels hit by NATO air attack

Second such incident in less than a week leaves five fighters dead, in country's eastern oil town of Brega.

    Rebels claim to have regained lost ground along the frontlines near the oil port of Brega in eastern Libya [EPA]

    A NATO air attack has hit a Libyan rebel position near the eastern oil town of Brega, killing at least five fighters, according to rebel fighters and a hospital worker.

    Thursday's attack also left at least 10 others wounded, witnesses and correspondents of the AFP news agency said.

    Medical workers carried uniforms soaked in blood from one of hospital rooms. And some rebel fighters were weeping on their knees in the corridor.

    It was the second time in less than a week that rebels blamed NATO for bombing their comrades by mistake. Thirteen died in an air raid not far from the same spot on Saturday.

    A Reuters news agency reporter saw bloodstained stretchers being brought out of the hospital in Ajdabiya, where those wounded in the attack were being treated.

    Ajdabiya lies about 80km from Brega.

    "We were standing by our tanks and NATO fired two rockets at us," said one, Salem Mislat. "NATO are liars. They are siding with Gaddafi."

    Checkpoint chaos

    Chaotic scenes were witnessed at a rebel checkpoint on the edge of Ajdabiya, with ambulances racing through, heading for the hospital followed by a convoy of rebel military vehicles.

    Civilians were ordered away from the checkpoint.

    NATO fighter jets have been targeting Muammar Gaddafi's forces around Brega, where rebels have been halted in their bid to advance on the capital Tripoli and oust the Libyan strongman.

    But rebels have accused the alliance of failing in their mission to protect civilians while a chief rebel spokesman said coalition warplanes had killed 13 people, four of them civilians, in an air raid near Brega on April 1.

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    The attack followed reports of pro-democracy fighters having regained ground in a new advance on Brega.

    Rebels said the loss of ground early this week to forces loyal to Gaddafi is a normal occurrence in fluid desert wars, and will not prevent them from ousting the Libyan leader.

    Earlier, NATO stepped up the pace of its air campaign over Libya on Wednesday, a day after facing fierce criticism of not doing enough to protect civilians in Misurata.

    The alliance dismissed opposition criticisms, saying the safety of civilians is its top priority and pledged to do everything it can to ensure that.

    It accused Gaddafi's troops of hiding tanks, troops and heavy weapons among civilians to stop NATO aircrafts from carrying out air strikes.

    But Al Jazeera's Laurence Lee, reporting from Benghazi on Thursday,  said that Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, the vice-chairman of the Libyan National Provisional Council, continues to insist that NATO do more. 

    "He has certainly strengthened his language, and he even went on to call NATO a 'burden', which is an extraordinary thing to say under the current circumstances."

    "There is obviously agreement here among the opposition that if more military gains are to be made, international forces must step up their operations."

    Loss of territory

    Gaddafi's forces pushed back rebels from Brega on Tuesday in the pro-democracy movement's first significant loss of territory in almost a week.

    "This kind of desert fight is very fluid; advancing 20 kilometres and then retreating 20 kilometres is normal in a desert war," Mustafa Gheriani, a rebel spokesman, said.

    Gheriani said "our forces are at the eastern border of the city, the [Gaddafi] militias are inside the city and the fight is going on".

    He said Gaddafi's army "has a lot of weapons left" and can threaten Ajdabiya, about 80km further east, "but we hope our resolve and most of all the resolve of NATO will prevent them to do that".

    In another development, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, rebuffed a personal appeal from Gaddafi to Barack Obama, the US president, saying the Libyan leader should impose a ceasefire, withdraw his forces and go into exile.

    The White House confirmed Gaddafi had written a letter to Obama but did not disclose its contents.

    The Associated Press news agency, which first reported the letter, said Gaddafi had appealed to Obama for a ceasefire in a rambling, three-page letter.

    "Mr Gaddafi knows what he must do. There needs to be a cease-fire, his forces need to withdraw from the cities that they have forcibly taken at great violence and human cost," Clinton said at a news conference with Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, on Wednesday.

    "There needs to be a decision made about his departure from power and ... his departure from Libya.

    "I don't think there is any mystery about what is expected from Mr Gaddafi at this time. The sooner that occurs, and the bloodshed ends, the better it will be for everyone."

    Crude shipment

    Attacks by government troops this week have also halted production in rebel-held oil fields, just as a tanker with the first shipment of crude left Tobruk on Wednesday.

    The rebels have a deal to export oil via the Gulf state of Qatar and use the profits to pay salaries and buy food, medicine and arms to fight Gaddafi.

    Ghoga, the rebel official, said groups of armoured vehicles attacked the oil field of Messla and of Sarir earlier this week.

    He said that while the extent of damage remains unclear, the rebels can no longer sustain the 100,000 barrels a day they had been producing. By contrast, in 2009, Libya produced 1.65 million barrels of oil per day.

    The rebels still have about one million barrels in storage in Tobruk, which is being exported through the Qatari deal.

    The two fields are part of the massive Sirte Basin region, which is one of the world's largest oil fields and holds 80 per cent of Libya's oil reserves.

    Sarir field was discovered in 1961 and is the largest oil field in the country, with estimated reserves of 12 billion barrels. A pipeline carries its oil north to Tobruk. Messla, discovered in 1971 and just 40km north of Sarir, is estimated to hold three billion barrels of oil.

    Libya has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa, even more than Nigeria, at an estimated 46.4 billion barrels as of January 2011, according to Oil and Gas Journal.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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