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With Libya rebels stalled, frustration with NATO mounts

Libya rebels' outcry over a mistaken NATO airstrike demonstrates frustration with the alliance as the opposition realizes that international action is not intended to win their war for them.

By Staff writer / April 8, 2011

Libyan rebels run from explosions at the western gate of Ajdabiya, Libya, on April 8.

Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

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Ajdabiya, Libya

When NATO warplanes hit three Libyan rebel tanks west of Ajdabiya yesterday, the airstrikes touched off a panicked exodus from the city. The errant attacks also set off wild rumors that Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s air force once again controlled Libya's skies.

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The strikes were a case of mistaken identity, the deputy head of the alliance's Libya operations insisted today. “The situation in the area is still very fluid, with tanks and other vehicles moving in different directions,” British Rear Admiral Russell Harding told reporters, adding that it was the first time NATO had encountered rebel tanks on the move.

But the reaction to the incident demonstrates a growing well of frustration in Libya’s east as rebels begin to realize that international action is not designed to win their war for them. In Benghazi, and among the lightly armed rebel militia, the first seeds of doubt are also emerging that Colonel Qaddafi will be removed from power soon.

IN PICTURES: Libya conflict

After the NATO strikes yesterday, a small group of rebel militiamen chanted outside Ajdabiya for an end to international operations here. There were dark mutterings in Benghazi that NATO, prodded by Turkey, which has extensive business interests here, was cutting a deal behind their backs with Qaddafi.

“When it was the US and France, their fire was accurate, they were supporting us,” says Omar Mussa, who’s been with the disorganized rebel militia since late February, standing at the western gate of Ajdabiya. “Since NATO took over, there have been lots of mistakes like yesterday, and no support for us. Obviously, something is going on.”

Signs from the rebel front indicate that more such mishaps could be in the rebels' future. The young militiamen continue to fire weapons into the air for no apparent reason – and continue to deploy antiaircraft guns to the front, even though the only likely targets are now NATO planes. This afternoon, one bored militiaman fired two long bursts from his antiaircraft gun – something that runs the risk of drawing a NATO attack, if a plane happens to be overhead.

Intent of Resolution 1973

Few Libyans read the full text of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, and if they did they assumed that its call to protect Libyan civilians from violence would be interpreted as a mandate to remove Qaddafi from power.

That impression was bolstered by the comments of President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who have repeatedly insisted that Qaddafi must leave power.

But what’s emerged since the resolution was passed is an international community that appears willing to protect eastern cities that are clearly in rebel hands like Ajdabiya or Benghazi, but that is unwilling to bend its mandate to the point of breaking by coordinating attacks with rebel offensives pushing west.

“This is the bind NATO finds itself in,” writes Peter Bouckaert, a Human Rights Watch researcher who has spent extensive amounts of time on the rebel side of the Libyan front in the past six weeks, in an e-mail.

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