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NATO Blamed as Libyan Rebels Flee Assault By Qaddafi Forces

The Head of Libyan Rebel Forces Abdel Fattah Younes
The head of Libyan rebel forces Abdel Fattah Younes. Photographer: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

Libyan rebels retreated under heavy fire from the central oil port of Brega, prompting their top commander to lash out at NATO for not doing enough to stop artillery attacks by Muammar Qaddafi’s forces.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is slow “in responding to our instructions” on targets and is failing to “give us what we need,” Abdel Fattah Younes, head of the rebel army and Qaddafi’s former interior minister, said at a press conference in Benghazi broadcast on Al Jazeera television. He was particularly critical of the alliance for failing to stop Qaddafi’s weeks-long siege of Misrata, the rebel-held western city near Tripoli that has been the scene of repeated attacks.

NATO officials denied reducing their air patrols since the U.S. handed off command to the 28-nation alliance and withdrew its Libya operations strike aircraft from April 5. Rebels and loyalists have been fighting running battles on the coastal road between the Qaddafi stronghold of Sirte and the rebel-held gateway city of Ajdabiyah.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe called the situation on the ground “confused” and said coalition pilots are having difficulty identifying targets because both sides are using the same types of pick-up trucks. The coalition isn’t ready to arm rebel forces, he said today on France Info radio.

NATO Assets

The alliance’s commander “has the assets he needs to execute his mission,” Brigadier General Mark van Uhm of the Netherlands told reporters in Brussels yesterday. He said attacks by the U.S. and allies have destroyed nearly a third of Qaddafi’s heavy weapons, according to the Associated Press.

Qaddafi has sent a message to President Barack Obama following what the Libyan leader termed “the withdrawal of America from the crusader colonial alliance against Libya,” Britain’s Telegraph newspaper said, citing Libya’s official news agency JANA. It gave no further details about the message. The newspaper also reported that NATO has asked the U.K. to deploy more jets for Libya operations to make up for a shortfall after the U.S. pullout.

Fourteen airstrikes by NATO jets on April 4 targeted air-defense systems and tanks of the regime in Misrata as well as a rocket-launcher in Brega, van Uhm said.

Oil Rises

Oil traded near its highest price in 30 months for a second day. Crude for May delivery on the New York Mercantile Exchange was up 8 cents at $108.42 at 11:02 a.m. London time. The contract traded as high as $108.78 a barrel on April 4, the highest front-month price since Sept. 24, 2008.

A resident of Misrata speaking by phone said that tank shelling had abated.

“It’s been relatively quiet today, however there are some clashes in the center of the city,” said the resident, who identified himself as Mountasser. “Tank shelling has stopped but snipers are around.”

Libyan rebels were preparing to make their first international oil sale as the tanker Equator, which can carry 1 million barrels, arrived at the Marsa al Hariga terminal near the port of Tobruk in opposition-controlled eastern Libya yesterday, according to AISLive Ltd. ship-tracking data compiled by Bloomberg. The cargo may bring more than $100 million for the rebels.

Capturing Brega is crucial for the rebels because its refinery could boost the opposition’s control of oil in the east. The rebels’ national council said April 1 that it had reached a deal to have Qatar help market Libyan oil, with proceeds going toward food, fuel, medicine and other uses. Italian oil company Eni SpA has been in contact with the Libyan rebels now that Italy has recognized the council.

Diplomatic Overtures

European governments have repeatedly said that Qaddafi, 68, must end his 42-year rule and have rejected diplomatic overtures from the Libyan government, which on April 4 called for an “international dialogue” to resolve the conflict.

“We’ve got half a plan at the moment,” Richard Dannatt, the U.K.’s former chief of the General Staff, said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “Success equates to when Qaddafi is gone. That’s what they can’t say. That’s what we’ve got to do, though.”

So far France, Qatar and Italy have recognized the rebels as Libya’s legitimate government, with Kuwait saying it is prepared to do so. The U.S. and the U.K., which have contacts with the rebels, haven’t formally recognized the opposition.

The U.S. military pulled out its fighter jets after an April 4 mission over Libya, carrying out a pledge by Obama to hand over most military missions to NATO and its allies. The U.S. will keep attack aircraft on standby and resume flights if necessary, while U.S. command-and-control aircraft and Navy ships remain in action.

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