Nato sinks boat carrying Gaddafi troops

2011-08-19 22:05

Zawiya - Nato warplanes sunk a tugboat carrying troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi away from the strategic western city of Zawiya as rebels advanced closer to the Libyan capital, the alliance said on Friday.

Meanwhile, the International Organisation for Migration said an operation to rescue "large numbers" of Egyptians and other foreigners from Tripoli will begin in coming days.

The attack struck the tugboat Wednesday as rebels in Zawiya laid siege to Libya's last functioning oil refinery in a symbolic coup for the opposition, although government forces still hold the center.

In London, British military spokesperson Major General Nick Pope said pilots noticed a unit of government troops that had been fighting in the oil refinery using a tugboat "in an attempt to redeploy to new positions."

One of the jets used a laser-guided bomb to hit the boat, he said. "It was clear from their actions that these troops continued to pose a threat to the local population," Pope said. He did not elaborate.

An officer at Nato's operational headquarters in Naples, Italy, said a rescue attempt was made after aircraft spotted several survivors of the sinking swimming toward a nearby buoy.

The officer could not be identified under standing rules.

Libyan rebels have clashed with Gaddafi troops in Zawiya this week in an attempt to take the city and inch closer to the capital Tripoli just 50km to the east.

The rebels claimed on Thursday they had captured the 120 000-barrel-per-day refinery in fighting that could be a turning point in the six-month civil war between Gaddafi and forces seeking to oust him.

The flow of crude to the refinery from fields in the southwest of Libya had largely been halted since midsummer and its capture was unlikely to have a major impact on Gaddafi's ability to secure fuel, but it was seen as a significant step in the rebel advance toward the capital.

Explosions also shook the capital early Friday as Nato jets were heard circling overhead. Flames lit up the Tripoli skies near Gaddafi's Bab al-Aziziya headquarters and army barracks.

Seven thunderous blasts could be felt at a hotel where foreign journalists stay in Tripoli. Residents also told The Associated Press that three strikes were heard hitting the road to the airport in the capital.

Nato also said its planes took out five tanks in Zawiya on Thursday.

Window of opportunity

IOM spokesperson Jemini Pandya said the organisation has appealed to donors for emergency funding to finance the evacuation.

She said "a large group of journalists who are also stranded in Tripoli" also has asked to be rescued.

Pandya says "we have a very limited window of opportunity to carry out this operation because of the fighting".

The revolt in Libya began in mid-February, with the rebels quickly wresting control of much of the eastern half of the country, as well as pockets in the west.

But the conflict later settled into a stalemate with the rebels failing to budge the front lines in the east since April, and making only minor gains from the pockets they control in the western Nafusa mountains until this week as the rebels made enormous gains in capturing many western towns and claiming to control the road from Tripoli to the Tunisian border - the supply line of the capital.

The opposition said it has cut off fuel supplies to the regime's stronghold of Tripoli. A rebel field commander in Zawiya, says the fighting has shut down an oil pipeline to the capital, where a third of Libya's six million people live.

The rebels have surrounded the refinery.

Nato said it hit four military facilities and on surface to air missile in Tripoli on Thursday.

- AP

Read more on:    nato  |  muammar gaddafi  |  libya  |  libya protests  |  north africa  |  uprisings
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