NATO airstrikes cap week of rising pressure on Libya

NATO destroyed eight Libyan warships Friday in a week that saw a push for ICC arrest warrants for Qaddafi and a tough speech from Obama supporting the rebellion.

Darko Bandic/AP
Smoke rises from a ship that was hit in NATO airstrikes, at Tripoli sea port, Libya, early Friday, May 20.

NATO aircraft struck eight Libyan warships overnight Thursday, just hours after President Obama capped a week of increasing international pressure with a vow that Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi would fall from power.

"Time is working against Qaddafi," said Mr. Obama, who voiced strong support for pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East. "When Qaddafi inevitably leaves or is forced from power, decades of provocation will come to an end and the transition to a democratic Libya can proceed."

NATO further weakened Colonel Qaddafi's regime with the airstrikes today, which commanders said came after two weeks of increased use by the Libyan Navy and the government's "systematic attacks" on civilians.

"Given the escalating use of naval assets, NATO had no choice but to take decisive action to protect the civilian population of Libya and NATO forces at sea," said Rear Adm. Russell Harding, deputy commander of the NATO operation.

Libyan government spokesman Musa Ibrahim said the strikes were a "clear attempt to bring the nation to its knees" and that Libya "will starve," because the attacks were "clearly a message sent by NATO to the international maritime companies not to send any more vessels to Libya."

Rebel: 'I do not believe Obama has lost credibility'

Mr. Ibrahim was also quick to react to the US president's predictions of the regime's collapse, calling them "delusional."

"[Obama] believes the lies that his own government and own media spread around the world," said Libyan government spokesman Musa Ibrahim. "It's not Obama who decides whether Muammar Qaddafi leaves Libya or not. It's the Libyan people who decide their future."

Yet that future is already being decided – and with American help – according to opposition activists contacted this week in the Libyan capital.

"Many in Tripoli do not see the flaws of the past," says a rebel activist in Tripoli, adding that there has been "unprecedented movement ... over the Libya issue." Obama added his voice to growing international support for the rebel government yesterday, calling it a "legitimate and credible" interim authority.

"It would be easy to be negative over some of Obama's shortcomings regarding Syria and Palestine, but he has been extremely clear, extremely direct, and extremely strong on Libya, and that gives us heart," says the activist. "In Libya, certainly in Tripoli, I do not believe Obama has lost credibility."

'Significant stockpile' of boats destroyed

US and NATO military operations in Libya – under the banner of a mid-March UN Security Council resolution authorizing "all necessary means" to protect civilians from Qaddafi's regime – have been instrumental in ensuring the fledgling opposition was not overrun.

British planes today targeted the Al-Khums naval base, the closest to the rebel enclave of Misurata, from where rebels forced out pro-Qaddafi forces two weeks ago.

They struck two corvettes and a "facility in the dockyard constructing fast inflatable boats, which Libyan forces have used several times in their efforts to mine Misurata and attack vessels in the area," said British military spokesman Maj. Gen. John Lorimer.

The strikes destroyed a "significant stockpile" of the boats, he said.

But that didn't prevent Libyan state TV from declaring that "residential and military" targets had been hit by NATO planes, nor that the rebel-held city of Benghazi – from where a National Transitional Council rules all of eastern Libya in rebel hands – had somehow returned to pro-Qaddafi control.

The reports were demonstrably false, however – Western journalists in Benghazi indicated no change in status or pro-Qaddafi uprising.

Rebel make gains, oil minister has reportedly defected

Rather than a definitive victory for Qaddafi forces, stalemate has become the new watchword, though rebels have made recent gains in enclaves like Misurata and the western mountains.

Those gains coincide with the possible defection of Libyan Oil Minister Shukri Ghanem, who crossed to Tunisia and has not been heard from for days.

The government denied those defection reports, saying Mr. Ghanem was on an official visit to Europe. They also denied a statement from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who on Thursday told CBS that Qaddafi's wife and daughter had left Libya.

Adding to the pressure on the regime, this week the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague called on judges to issue arrest warrants for Qaddafi, his most influential son, and his intelligence chief.

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