NATO 'particularly careful' over Libya air strikes

'To avoid injury to civilians'

NATO, accused of mission failure by Libyan rebels, admitted Wednesday it has to be "particularly careful" with its air strikes as government troops are using civilians as human shields, but vowed to do everything to protect civilians in Misrata.
France pledged to open a sea corridor to the besieged Mediterranean port and rebels played down losing considerable ground to government forces as just the usual stakes in desert warfare.
"NATO forces have been particularly careful to avoid injury to civilians who are in close proximity to the fighting, often precisely because of the tactics of government forces," the deputy commander of operations, Rear Admiral Russell Harding told journalists.
"Libyan government forces have increasingly shifted to non-conventional tactics, blending in with road traffic and using civilian life as a shield for their advance," he said at the base in Naples overseeing operations.
The mandate to protect the civilian population was more challenging because of the stipulations of the UN Security Council resolution approving the mission, which explicitly rules out the use of ground troops.
"Because we are not allowed forces on the ground, there is a physical limit to what we are able to do in that respect," he said.
Libyan forces using these new tactics were moving eastwards "in the direction of Ajdabiya, posing a direct threat to that city and beyond that to Benghazi", he said.
"In response, NATO has pursued direct strikes on advancing forces and their logistics and munitions supply chains," he said.
"NATO has also used surgical air strikes to sever the main supply route between Ajdabiya and Misrata," he said, referring to the city of 500,000 in western Libya that has been besieged by Gathafi's forces for more than a month.
After the NATO alliance was forced on to the defensive after rebels urged the alliance to do more to protect Misrata, Harding said a "substantial number" of heavy vehicles and tanks had been destroyed in the area on Tuesday.
But he said it was very difficult to destroy tanks in built-up areas without harming residents who were being used as human shields.
"If you're trying to protect human shields when there is a tank with dozens of people around it -- innocent civilians -- the best thing at that stage is probably not to drop a bomb on that tank," he said.
When quizzed over rebel reports that NATO ships blocked boats carrying aid and arms from arriving in Misrata Tuesday, Harding said the rumours were false: "I think you'll find at the end of the day no vessels were detained by NATO."
The rebel tirade against NATO came as they sustained their first significant loss of territory to Moamer Gathafi's forces in almost a week, after they were sent fleeing from the edge of the oil town of Brega in a major assault.
The top commander of rebel forces, Abdelfatah Yunis, accused NATO-led aircraft of doing nothing while loyalist forces kept up their 40-day long artillery bombardment of civilians in Misrata, 215 kilometres (130 miles) east of Tripoli.
NATO "is letting the people of Misrata die every day", Yunis told reporters in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi late on Tuesday.
"If NATO waits one more week, there will be nothing left in Misrata," he added.
"If NATO wanted to break the blockade of the city, they would have done it several days ago... Every day, civilians -- elderly people and children -- are dying in Misrata. NATO has done nothing, they have just bombed here and there."
Doctors said last week that 200 people had been killed in Misrata, Libya's third largest city, since the uprising began on February 15.
The figure is likely to have risen in recent days.
A Turkish aid ship at the weekend brought out scores of wounded from the city, who told harrowing tales of the bombardment of residential areas by loyalist artillery.
NATO insisted that the pace of air strikes against Gathafi's forces has not slowed down since the 28-nation alliance took command on March 31 of a Western bombing campaign that had been led by the United States.
"Misrata is our number one priority," NATO deputy spokeswoman Carmen Romero said on Wednesday.
"We have a clear mandate and we will do everything to protect the civilians of Misrata," Romero said, referring to the UN Security Council resolution permitting "all necessary measures" to defend Libya's population.
The loss of ground to Gathafi's forces is a normal occurrence in fluid desert wars and will not prevent rebels from overthrowing the Libyan leader, the rebels' spokesman said Wednesday.
Mustafa Gheriani was referring to fighting on Tuesday, in which Gathafi forces pushed back rebels from the eastern oil refinery town of Brega in the rebels' first significant loss of territory in almost a week.
"This kind of desert fight is very fluid; advancing 20 kilometres (12 miles) and then retreating 20 kilometres is normal in a desert war," Gheriani said in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
"Look at the desert war during the Second World War, around (the eastern Libyan town of) Tobruk: they were moving by 50 kilometres (30 miles) every day."
In Paris, Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said Libyan rebels will now be able to supply Misrata by sea.
"We are going to ensure that ... aid comes from Benghazi and that at no moment Gathafi's military forces will be able to stop this," he told France Inter radio.
State news agency JANA said Gathafi sent a message to US President Barack Obama, following the withdrawal of American warplanes from Libya on Monday, but gave no details of its contents.