McCain: Libya's rebels need support

2011-04-23 12:09

Benghazi - US Senator John McCain called for increased military support for Libya's rebels on Friday, including weapons, training and stepped-up airstrikes, in a full-throated endorsement of the opposition in its fight to oust Muammar Gaddafi.

In the Libyan capital, meanwhile, a senior official said government troops would step back and allow local armed tribesmen to deal with rebels in the besieged city of Misrata.

The action came a day after the US began flying armed drones to bolster Nato airstrikes, and having the tribesmen take up the fight could make it harder for the Predators to distinguish them from Misrata's civilians or the rebels.

Early Saturday, loud booms were heard in Tripoli, apparently from Nato airstrikes.

Reporters were taken to an unpaved plot next to Gaddafi's sprawling Bab Aziziyeh residential compound in Tripoli. They were shown two craters, apparently from missiles that had pierced through thick layers of reinforced concrete, laying bare what looked like a bunker system. Eight narrow military-issue metal crates were stacked next to one of the craters.

About two dozen Gaddafi supporters arrived at the scene, waving green flags in support of the Libyan leader.

McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the US and other nations should recognise the opposition's political leadership as the "legitimate voice of the Libyan people." The White House disagreed, saying it was for the Libyan people to decide who their leaders are.

McCain also called the rebels "patriots" with no links to al-Qaeda, in contrast to what some critics have suggested, and added they should receive Gadhafi assets that were frozen by other countries.

The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said in Iraq that although the timing was hard to predict, the eventual ouster of Gaddafi and his family from power "is certain".

Rebels in the western city of Misrata raised their tricolor flag atop an eight-story building in celebration after driving pro-government snipers out of the structure on Thursday. The battle-scarred building commands a strategic view of the central part of Libya's third-largest city and the key main thoroughfare of Tripoli Street. The snipers had terrorised residents and pinned down rebel fighters.

As a result, the number of civilian casualties dropped dramatically on Friday for the first time in several weeks, said one rebel who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation.

"Spirits are high but the military situation is still unknown," he said. "The rebels easily entered yesterday, so it was clear that the Gadhafi forces quickly withdrew."

Although there was less fear about snipers, fighting was still taking place near Misrata's central hospital and the vegetable market, a rebel said.

In Tripoli, Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said tribal leaders had given the army an ultimatum, saying it must step aside if it cannot retake control of Misrata, which has been besieged by Gaddafi's forces for two months.

The tribal leaders would fight the rebels if they don't surrender, Kaim said late on Friday night.

Asked if that meant troops would get out of the way, he said: "This is how I imagine it would happen." However, he said negotiations between the military and tribal leaders are continuing.

Kaim did not say when the military would pull back from Misrata or when the armed tribesmen would move in. "We will leave it for the tribes around Misrata and the Misrata people to deal with the situation in Misrata," Kaim told reporters.

Hundreds of people have been killed in clashes between rebels and government forces in the city of 300,000. The international community has accused Libyan

At a news conference in the rebels' stronghold of Benghazi ini eastern Libya, McCain said he did not believe that the US should send in ground troops, but it should be much more involved in the air campaign and "facilitate" the arming and training of the rebels - much as it armed the mujahedeen who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

"We need to urgently step up the Nato air campaign to protect Libyan civilians, especially in Misrata," he said. "We desperately need more close air support and strike assets."

McCain applauded the Obama administration's decision to use the drones "so we can better identify Gaddafi's forces as they seek to conceal themselves in civilian areas".

Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Tripoli, Libya, Maggie Michael in Cairo, Pier Paolo Cito in Dhuheiba, Tunisia, Angela Charlton in Paris, Julie Pace aboard Air Force One, and Donna Cassata in Washington contributed to this report.


Read more on:    john mccain  |  muammar gaddafi  |  libya  |  uprisings

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