McCain: Libya's rebels need support
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
"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
"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.