The fight for Libya

The New York Times reports:

In the heaviest attack yet on the capital since the start of the two-month-old NATO bombing campaign, alliance aircraft struck at least 15 targets in central Tripoli early Tuesday, with most of the airstrikes concentrated on an area around Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s command compound.

The strikes, within a 30-minute period around 1 a.m., caused thunderous explosions and fireballs that leapt high into the night sky, causing people in neighborhoods a mile or more away to cry out in alarm.

Just as one strike ended, the sound of jet engines from low-flying aircraft in the stormy skies above the capital signaled the imminence of another. Huge plumes of black smoke rose and converged over the darkened cityscape.

“We thought it was the day of judgment,” one enraged Libyan said.

The intensity of the attacks, and their focus on the area of the Bab al-Aziziya command compound in central Tripoli, appeared to reflect a NATO decision to step up the tempo of the air war over the Libyan capital, perhaps with a view to breaking the stalemate that has threatened to settle over the three-month-old Libyan conflict.

As NATO intensified its airstrikes, the American State Department’s highest-ranking Middle East official, Jeffrey D. Feltman, was in Benghazi on Tuesday on a visit aimed at providing fresh impetus to the rebel cause. Speaking at a news conference, Mr. Feltman said that the Obama administration had invited the Libyan opposition to open an office in Washington, but stopped short of offering the formal recognition the rebels have been seeking.

From an Awac flying over the Mediterranean, the New York Times reports:

Just after midnight on Sunday, an allied Mirage 2000 fighter jet prowling the Libyan coastline attacked a Libyan missile patrol boat that military officials said threatened NATO and humanitarian aid vessels in nearby waters.

The strike on the Libyan warship in the harbor at Sirt came at the end of a convoluted chain that started with political orders from Brussels, passed through two military command centers in Italy and concluded with controllers aboard this Awacs command-and-control plane 50 miles off the Libyan coast authorizing the Mirage to bomb the boat.

Two months into the Libya air campaign, allied officers insist they have worked out the kinks in an operation initially plagued by NATO’s inexperience in waging a complex air war against moving targets and botched communications with the ragtag rebel army. The confusion resulted in at least two accidental bombings that killed over a dozen rebel fighters.

As Tuesday’s heavy airstrikes in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, underscored, NATO is escalating the pace and intensity of attacks on Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces, trying to break an apparent stalemate in the three-month-old conflict. Yet the alliance is still short on reconnaissance planes to identify hostile targets and refueling planes to allow fighter-bombers to conduct longer missions, a senior NATO diplomat said.

French and British officials said this week that they were sending more than a dozen attack helicopters to allow for more precise ground attacks, particularly around Misurata, where loyalist forces continue to fire mortars and artillery despite rebel gains and heavy air attacks.

With no troops on the ground, NATO planners and pilots acknowledge that they often cannot pinpoint the shifting battle lines in cities like Misurata. “The front lines are more scattered,” said Col. L. S. Kjoeller, who commands four Danish F-16s flying eight daily strike missions from Sigonella air base in Sicily.

Information on Libyan forces filters up from Central Intelligence Agency officers and allied special operations troops working with the rebels on the ground, as well as from the rebels themselves. But NATO planners say they have no direct contact with anyone on the ground to help coordinate the roughly 50 allied attack missions every night.

Instead, they rely on an array of imagery and electronic intercepts collected by drones, spy planes and satellites, as well as news media reports and other whispers of intelligence. These are used to build a round-the-clock campaign that allied officers say is preventing Colonel Qaddafi from making sustained attacks on rebel fighters and driving him deeper into hiding.

Reuters reports:

African migrants, captured and jailed by the rebels they were fighting in Libya’s Western Mountains, say they were tricked or coerced into the army of Muammar Gaddafi in the belief they faced an al Qaeda invasion.

In rare first-hand accounts from a group branded “mercenaries” by the rebels, five men from Sudan’s western Darfur region and Chad told Reuters how they were working in Libya as builders and decorators when they became embroiled in the conflict unleashed by an uprising to end Gaddafi’s four-decade rule.

They spoke last week at a makeshift jail in a secondary school in the rebel-held town of Zintan. They have had no contact with their families or aid groups, and medical workers in the town say they have had only limited access to the men.

Some of what they said about their treatment in the prison appeared aimed at pleasing their captors. At one point, a guard outside the cell loaded two cartridges into a double-barrelled shotgun and motioned as if to shoot the prisoners.

Mohammed, who said he was a decorator from Darfur, said he enlisted in April in the capital, Tripoli.

“In Tripoli I went to military camp 77. They trained me in how to use weapons and told us we were only going to guard checkpoints. They told us there were Algerians, French and al Qaeda in Maghreb fighting in Libya,” he said.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIB) is al Qaeda’s north African branch.

“We found nothing like that,” he said. “We’ve been tricked. It wasn’t true.”

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