By Nick Carey | Reuters
TRIPOLI (Reuters) – NATO‘s chief on Thursday slapped down a call from Italy for a suspension of hostilities in Libya and tried to reassure wavering members of the Western coalition that Muammar Gaddafi can be beaten.
Italy’s ceasefire call exposed the strain on the NATO alliance, nearly 14 weeks into a bombing campaign that has so far failed to dislodge Gaddafi but is causing mounting concerns about its financial cost and about civilian casualties.
Highlighting the wider consequences of the war in the North African oil-producer, oil-consuming nations announced a rare move to release reserves from oil stockpiles to fill the gap left by disruption to Libyan output.
Asked about Italy’s ceasefire call, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a newspaper interview: “No, on the contrary. We shall continue and see it through to the end.”
“The allies are committed to making the necessary effort for a sustained operation,” he told France’s Le Figaro newspaper.
“We will take the time needed until the military objective is reached: end all attacks against Libyan civilians, return armed forces to barracks and freedom of movement for humanitarian aid.”
NATO says it is operating under a United Nations mandate to protect civilians from Gaddafi’s forces as he tries to crush an uprising against his 41-year rule. Gaddafi says NATO’s real aim is to steal the country’s plentiful oil.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said the Libyan leader’s ability to hold out was being steadily worn down, so now was not the moment to relax the pressure on him.
“Time is on our side, time is not on the side of Colonel Gaddafi,” Cameron said on a visit to the Czech capital. “So we need to be patient and persistent.”
NATO said it had delivered a blow to Gaddafi forces near Zlitan, a town about 170 km (105 miles) east of Tripoli, with an air and naval strike on Wednesday that took out 13 armed vehicles, an armored personnel carrier and a rocket launcher.
At the weekend, NATO acknowledged for the first time in the campaign that it may have caused multiple civilian casualties, when an air strike hit a house in Tripoli, prompting a vitriolic attack from Gaddafi in an audio speech broadcast late Wednesday.
“You said, ‘We hit our targets with precision’, you murderers!” he said. “One day we will respond to you likewise and your homes will be legitimate targets.”
Libyan officials in Tripoli took reporters to the central Green Square where a crowd of around 200 people, most of them women waving green flags or pictures of Gaddafi, had gathered to demonstrate their support.
“We love our leader. We want him to stay in this country,” said one woman, who gave her name as Budur.
There was though a note of discord. As the reporters were guided back to their bus by government minders, a man shouted out of his car window: “Gaddafi go down!”
Time is now a crucial factor for both sides in the conflict, with unity in the NATO-led coalition likely to come under more strain and Gaddafi’s ability to resist being steadily worn down by sanctions, air strikes and fighting with rebels.
In Paris, the 28-member International Energy Agency said it would release 60 million barrels a day over an initial 30 days to fill the gap left by the disruption to Libya’s output.
Libya was exporting about 1.2 million bpd before the rebellion that brought its oil industry to a standstill.
“This supply disruption has been underway for some time and its effect has become more pronounced as it has continued,” said the IEA. “Greater tightness in the oil market threatens to undermine the fragile global economic recovery.”
In a sign that Gaddafi’s military is being stretched, a Reuters photographer in rebel-held Al Qalaa saw about 50 navy servicemen being held prisoner in a police station.
They said their commanders had told them they were being deployed to protect the region from attack by al Qaeda, and they were later captured by the rebels.
The conflict has effectively partitioned Libya. The eastern third around the city of Benghazi is in rebels hands while the West — apart from some rebel enclaves — is controlled by Gaddafi. There is almost no movement between the two.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had begun an operation to transfer people back home who had been trapped on the wrong side of the civil war divide.
It said a ship would take several hundred from Tripoli to Benghazi, and about 110 were due to travel the other way.
“Most of the people we are transferring are Libyans who were working away from their home towns or visiting relatives or friends when the conflict broke out,” said Paul Castella, head of the ICRC delegation in Tripoli.
“They are very eager to rejoin their families.”