Border post seized, NATO warns Libya civilians
Apr 22, 2011 at 00:08
MISRATA, Libya (AFP) – Libyan rebels Thursday overran a post on the Tunisian border, marking their first advance in weeks against Moamer Kadhafi’s forces as NATO warned civilians to stand clear of its bombing blitz.
The United States, meanwhile, said it would deploy armed drones over Libya.
The capture of Wazin border post was cheered by several hundred rebels who raised the flag of the Libyan monarchy after between 150 and 200 pro-Kadhafi soldiers abandoned their weapons and fled into Tunisia.
Some insurgents paraded in the bucket of a bulldozer and dozens of rebel vehicles were present at the border post, 200 kilometres (125 miles) south of the main Tunisian-Libyan crossing at Ras Jdir.
Rebels have been pinned back by government troops for more than three weeks in the eastern Libya and suffered heavy losses in Misrata, which has been pounded for more than six weeks in fighting which has cost hundreds of lives.
Among the latest to die in Misrata were 41-year-old Tim Hetherington, an Oscar-nominated British film director and war photographer, and award-winning US photographer Chris Hondros, also 41.
The two photographers were hit by mortar fire on Wednesday while covering fighting in Misrata’s Tripoli street, the frontline in a bloody battle for control of the city, witnesses said.
Government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim told reporters in Tripoli that Libyan troops were not to blame for the deaths.
“We are very sad for the loss of any human life even from the rebel side, so we’re really sad for the loss of these two lives,” Ibrahim said, adding, “It’s not the responsibility of our army.”
A Turkish ferry carrying hundreds of civilians evacuated from Misrata docked safely on Thursday in the port of Benghazi, seat of the opposition.
NATO, meanwhile, warned civilians to avoid areas close to Kadhafi’s troops, as it pursues a UN mandate to protect non-combatants while enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya.
“Our planners and pilots go to very great lengths to ensure we do all we can to reduce the risk to civilians when we attack targets, but the risk cannot be reduced to zero,” the general in charge of NATO’s operations said.
“Civilians can assist NATO by distancing themselves from Kadhafi regime forces and equipment whenever possible,” Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard said in a statement from Brussels.
And US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said the American military would use armed drones over Libya, calling them a “modest contribution” to the coalition’s military campaign against Kadhafi.
“They give you a capability that even the A10 (anti-tank aircraft) and AC130 (ground attack aircraft) couldn’t provide,” he told a press briefing in Washington.
NATO’s warning came as Libyan official media reported seven civilians killed and 18 wounded in an alliance air raid that targeted the southwestern Tripoli suburb of Khellat Al-Ferjan late on Wednesday.
However, NATO said it had no indication that its raid on the suburb killed civilians, saying the target was a command and control bunker in a military compound.
State news agency Jana said a number of civilians were also killed in NATO air strikes on Thursday on the Libyan town of Gharyan, 90 kilometres (55 miles) southwest of Tripoli.
There was no independent confirmation of the report.
Rebel leaders in Misrata have pleaded for foreign soldiers to help them battle Kadhafi’s forces, saying the air strikes are not enough to dislodge troops hiding in civilian areas and fighting street by street.
France, Italy and Britain have said they would send military personnel to insurgent-held eastern Libya, but only to advise the rebels on technical, logistical and organisational matters and not to engage in combat.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Thursday warned against a Western ground operation in Libya, saying it would be an “extremely risky” action with unpredictable consequences.
Massive Libyan protests in February — inspired by the revolts that toppled longtime autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia — escalated into war when Kadhafi’s troops fired on demonstrators and protesters seized several eastern towns.
The battle lines have been more or less static in recent weeks, however, as NATO air strikes have helped block Kadhafi’s eastward advance but failed to give the poorly organised and lightly-armed rebels a decisive victory.
The capture of the Wazin border post marked the first time since March 28, when rebels swept through a string of towns in the east under cover of allied air strikes that the outgunned insurgents have made any headway.
The gains in the east were quickly reversed and the rebels were pushed almost all the way back to their bastion in Benghazi.