Airstrikes by Allies ‘Pressurizing’ Qaddafi’s Forces on Ground

U.S. and allied warplanes are striking Muammar Qaddafi’s ground forces that have continued attacks on Libyan cities, as NATO members failed for a third day to resolve disputes over a role for the alliance.

Libyan government forces have increased their attacks on cities, killing 16 people today in embattled Misrata and six in the nearby coastal town of Zentan, opposition spokesman Abdulhafid Ghoga said at a news conference in Benghazi.

The coalition that intervened in the conflict is “pressurizing Qaddafi’s forces” by targeting government tanks, artillery, supply lines and communications points, said U.S. Rear Admiral Gerard Hueber. Regime forces must pull back from embattled cities and allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians, he said, briefing reporters at the Pentagon by telephone from a command ship in the Mediterranean.

“All attacks against civilians must stop,” he said.

The Libya conflict began in February in the eastern city of Benghazi. It is the bloodiest of the uprisings that have spread across the Middle East and ousted the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.

As the regional turmoil continued, crude oil for May delivery rose 78 cents to $105.75 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the highest settlement since Sept. 26, 2008. Prices have advanced 29 percent in the past year.

NATO Dispute

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Qaddafi can end the allied attacks by giving up power. The Libyan leader “has a decision to make,” she said, speaking at the State Department in Washington. Qaddafi has repeatedly said he will not submit to demands he give up power after four decades.

In Brussels, NATO failed to agree on an expanded role in Libya, as squabbles prevented the U.S. from handing off command of the campaign against Qaddafi. The 28-member bloc has yet to find the formula to balance military needs and political sensitivities in the five-day-old operation.

“These are difficult discussions on very difficult issues,” alliance spokeswoman Oana Lungescu told reporters in Brussels today. “NATO is ready to act if and when required.”

Foreign ministers of the countries involved in the military operation in Libya will meet March 29 in London, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.

President Barack Obama spoke with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy yesterday to try to resolve the issues, statements yesterday from their offices said. Obama said he is confident the issues will resolved so the transfer can happen “within days.” A likely outcome would give NATO some operational duties with political oversight from an ad-hoc grouping of coalition member nations, according to a Western diplomat at the United Nations.

‘Pretty Bad Picture’

“It paints a pretty bad picture of the political dynamics,” Bastian Giegerich, a consulting fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said in an interview. “Normally the U.S. is the first among equals in NATO, but with the Americans stepping back it makes it more difficult to create consensus.”

The initial wave of allied airstrikes concentrated on Libya’s air defenses and grounded Qaddafi’s air force. The coalition flew 175 sorties in a 24-hour period through this morning, including 63 by non-U.S. aircraft, Hueber said.

Qaddafi’s forces have continued attacks against Benghazi, Misrata, and Ajdabiya, he said. “Qaddafi’s forces are targeting civilian population centers specifically,” he said.

Those forces must stop their attacks and pull back in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1973, he said, adding that the U.S. has sent word to Qaddafi’s forces about how to position themselves if they want to avoid being targeted.

“Our primary focus is to interdict those forces before they enter the city, cut off their lines of communication, and cut off their command and control,” Hueber said.

Qaddafi’s Targets

Qaddafi battalions have been shelling targets near Benghazi, al-Jazeera reported, citing its own reporter. Seventeen people were killed in Misrata yesterday, Saadoun al- Misrati, a rebel spokesman there, told Al Arabiya television.

Cameron said there are now 11 nations with 150 aircraft operating in the allied mission across Libya. He said two more Arab nations, Kuwait and Jordan, would join the coalition to supply logistical help.

“A no-fly zone is in place over Libya,” Cameron told lawmakers in Parliament in London today. He said the city of Benghazi was largely under rebel control though “clearly there is great concern about what the regime is doing in Misrata.”

“A lot more remains to be done,” Cameron said.

Protecting Civilians

Hueber said the coalition is now focusing on efforts to protect civilians who are in “grave danger.” Those population centers include Misrata, in western Libya; Ajdabiya, the gateway to Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city; and Zawiyah, near Tripoli.

Qaddafi’s forces continued their siege of the Misrata, preventing anyone from coming in or out and blocking food and medical supplies, Mohamed Al-Misrati, a city resident, said by satellite phone. “The city is completely isolated now with no water, electricity or communications,” he said. “The medical situation is extremely difficult. We don’t have enough equipment or medicines.”

Aiman Abushahma, a doctor at Misrata’s Central Hospital, said snipers were keeping staff away from the hospital.

“There are snipers on the high building by the hospital and they are shooting anybody that comes near,” he said in a telephone interview.

Elsewhere, Yemen’s U.S.-backed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled for three decades, urged unity among the armed forces after several officers defected to join protesters, and won parliament support for the state of emergency he declared last week after dozens of demonstrators were shot dead by pro-regime gunmen.

Bahrain, Israel

Bahrain has imposed a curfew after the Sunni Muslim monarchy brought in Saudi Arabian security forces to crush Shiite protests. Israeli artillery and air strikes in the Gaza Strip have left at least seven Palestinians dead in the past two days, and four people were killed in the latest outbreak of unrest in Syria, according to Al Arabiya.

About 20 people were injured in an explosion near the entrance to Jerusalem today, Israel’s Channel 2 reported. Police have confirmed that there was an explosion and had no immediate details, spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said by telephone.

To contact the reporters on this story: Tony Capaccio in Washington at acapaccio@bloomberg.net; James Neuger in Brussels at jneuger@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

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