Thursday, April 07, 2011

General: US may consider sending troops into Libya

AJDABIYAH, Libya — The U.S. may consider sending troops into Libya with a possible international ground force that could aid the rebels, the former U.S. commander of the military mission said Thursday, describing the ongoing operation as a stalemate that is more likely to go on now that America has handed control to NATO.

But Army Gen. Carter Ham also told lawmakers that American participation in a ground force would not be ideal, since it could erode the international coalition attacking Moammar Gadhafi's forces and make it more difficult to get Arab support for operations in Libya.

He said NATO has done an effective job in an increasingly complex combat situation. But he noted that, in a new tactic, Gadhafi's forces are making airstrikes more difficult by staging their fighters and vehicles near civilian areas such as schools and mosques.

The use of an international ground force is a possible plan to bolster the Libyan rebels, Ham said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

Asked whether the U.S. would provide troops, Ham said, "I suspect there might be some consideration of that. My personal view at this point would be that that's probably not the ideal circumstance, again for the regional reaction that having American boots on the ground would entail."

President Barack Obama has said repeatedly there will be no U.S. troops on the ground in Libya, although there are reports of small CIA teams in the country.

Pressed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., about the situation in Libya, Ham agreed that a stalemate "is now more likely" since NATO took command.

U.S. is providing some strike aircraft to the NATO operation that do not need to go through the special approval process recently established. The powerful side-firing AC-130 gunship is available to NATO commanders, he said.Story: Fiercely pro-Gadhafi, Libya TV host leaps to fame

His answer countered earlier claims by the Pentagon that all strike aircraft must be requested through U.S. European Command and approved by top U.S. leaders, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Ham said that process still applies to other fighters and the A-10 Thunderbolt, which can provide close air support for ground forces, He said that process is quick, and other defense officials have said it can take about a day for the U.S. to approve the request and move the aircraft in from bases in Europe.

Overall, he said the U.S. is providing less than 15 percent of the airstrikes and between 60 percent and 70 percent of the support effort, which includes intelligence gathering, surveillance, electronic warfare and refueling.

Recent bad weather and threats from Gadhafi's mobile surface-to-air missile systems have hampered efforts to use the AC-130 and A-10 aircraft for close air support for friendly ground forces. Ham said those conditions, which include as many as 20,000 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, contributed to the stalemate.

Ham said he believes some Arab nations are starting to provide training or weapons to the rebels. And he repeated assertions that the U.S. needs to know more about the opposition forces before it would get more deeply involved in assisting them.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, complained that the lack of knowledge about the rebels is a U.S. intelligence failure.

"It strikes me as unusual and maybe something that Congress needs to look at further, that our intelligence capabilities are so limited that we don't even know the composition of the opposition force in Libya, " Cornyn said.

Ham said it was important for the U.S. to turn control over to NATO because many of the troops involved in the Libya strikes are preparing to go to Iran or Afghanistan or have just recently returned from the warfront.

"While we can certainly surge to meet operational needs," Ham said, "there is a longer-term effect if greater numbers of U.S. forces had been committed for a longer period of time in Libya and it would have had downstream operational effects in other missions."

Separately, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said U.S. envoy Chris Stevens' talks continue with the Libyan opposition in Benghazi.

"He is going to stay there for several more days at least," Toner said. "He is working with the opposition members to try to get a good sense of what kind of practical assistance we can provide them, what are their needs and how we can help then moving forward. There is a sense of urgency here."

He said Stevens is also getting a better assessment of who the rebels are.

The Armed Services Committee's chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he remains concerned about increasing activity by al-Qaida-linked militants in Africa, and said the military must make sure the terror group does not "take advantage of the fog of war in Libya."

Ham said al-Qaida extremists have said they intend to partner with the Libyan rebels, which increases worries about arming the opposition.

Friendly fire?
Wounded rebels being brought to a hospital in Ajdabiyah in rebel-held east Libya said they were hit by a NATO strike on their trucks and tanks outside the contested port of Brega.

NATO said it was investigating an attack by its aircraft on a tank column in the area on Thursday.

Medical workers carried blood-soaked uniforms from hospital rooms in Ajdabiyah, gateway to the insurgent stronghold of Benghazi in the east, after wounded fighters were ferried back from Brega.

"It was a NATO air strike on us. We were near our vehicles near Brega," wounded fighter Younes Jumaa said from a stretcher at the hospital.

Nurse Mohamed Ali said at least five rebels were dead.

Rebel fighters were weeping on their knees in the corridor.

"NATO are liars. They are siding with Gadhafi," said Salem Mislat, one of the rebels.

NBC News reported that the strike occurred about six miles from Brega. A bus was among the vehicles hit, according to witnesses.

A NATO spokesman told NBC News that officials were "aware of media reports regarding events on the ground in Libya but we have not been able to confirm anything."

It was the second time in less than a week that rebels had blamed NATO for bombing their comrades by mistake. Thirteen were killed in an air strike not far from the same spot on Saturday.

Miseries abound for besieged Libyans

A doctor who had been at the front among rebel ambulance crews said they were hit by a government rocket attack immediately after the air strike. One medical worker was killed.

The rebels have been fighting to seize control of Brega from forces loyal to Gadhafi for a week in a see-saw battle along the Mediterranean coast.

Rebel spokesmen told Reuters Gadhafi forces killed five people and wounded 25 in an artillery bombardment of the isolated and besieged western city of Misrata on Wednesday.

The barrage forced the temporary closure of Misrata's port, a vital lifeline for supplies to besieged civilians, the spokesmen said. They added that NATO air strikes hit pro-Gadhafi positions around Misrata.

Misrata, Libya's third city, rose up with other towns against Gadhafi in mid-February and has been under siege for weeks, after a violent crackdown put an end to most protests elsewhere in the west of the country.

A rebel spokesman told Reuters people in Misrata were crammed five families to a house in the few safe districts to escape a rain of mortar shells from Gadhafi forces which have subjected them to weeks of sniper and artillery fire.

Peace plan
Turkey's prime minister on Thursday proposed a roadmap for peace, urging forces aligned with Gadhafi to withdraw from besieged cities, the establishment of humanitarian aid corridors and comprehensive democratic change.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the measures would be discussed at a meeting by a group set up to guide the international intervention in Libya in Qatar next week.

Erdogan also assured the Libyan opposition that Turkey supports their demands, following recent protests in Libya against Turkey by some opposition members.

Turkey initially balked at the idea of military action in Libya, but is now taking part in the enforcement of a no-fly zone to shield civilians and has volunteered to lead humanitarian aid efforts.

Britain's Foreign Office said the contact group that will meet in Qatar, which includes European powers, the U.S., allies from the Middle East and a number of international organizations will meet in Doha on Wednesday.

The ministry could not confirm precisely who has been invited to attend. British government officials said the U.S. would be represented, and that the Arab League is also expected to be at the talks.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said last week that he planned to travel to the talks alongside about a dozen other Arab, European and international officials.

The group was established during a summit in London last week to act as the political guide to the NATO-led military operation and humanitarian assistance mission in Libya.

Hague told Britain's Parliament last week that the panel would "maintain international unity and bring together a wide range of nations in support of a better future for Libya."

Gadhafi has been widely excluded from international efforts to broker a peace plan, with rebels insisting that his four-decade rule must end.

In Scotland, prosecutors confirmed that they would not have a chance Thursday to interview Moussa Koussa, the ex-Libyan foreign minister who fled to Britain via Tunisia last week and has spent eight days in discussions with diplomats and intelligence officials.

Prosecutors said on Monday they hoped to speak with Koussa within days over the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, which killed 270 people — mostly Americans.

In 2003, Libya acknowledged responsibility for the bombing and Scottish authorities believe Koussa could offer vital information to their ongoing inquiry.

Another former Gadhafi loyalist, Libya's ex-energy minister Omar Fathi bin Shatwan, has also held talks with British and other European diplomats to discuss the state of Gadhafi's regime. He told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he had fled to Malta on a fishing vessel.

Oil production plunges
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern about deteriorating conditions for civilians in Misrata and Zintan in the west, and Brega in the east.

He said the situation in Misrata was particularly grave and called for an end to attacks on civilians.

The civil war has cut Libyan oil output by 80 percent, a senior government official said on Thursday, as rebels and Gadhafi's forces traded charges over who had attacked oil fields vital to both sides.

The government's Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim told reporters the British air force had damaged an oil pipeline in a strike against the Sarir oilfield which killed three guards.

NATO denied the alliance carried out any air strikes in the Sarir area and said forces loyal to Gadhafi were responsible for an attack which started a fire in the oilfield. It said Gadhafi was trying to disrupt oil supplies to the rebel-held port of Tobruk.

Shokri Ghanem, chairman of the government National Oil Corporation, told Reuters on Thursday the country's production had fallen to 250,000 to 300,000 barrels per day compared with 1.6 million before the uprising.

He called a reported shipment of Libyan oil by the rebels "very sad" and said it would only contribute to tension and divide the country.

The Liberian-registered tanker Equator sailed from the port of Marsa el-Hariga, near Tobruk, on Wednesday, apparently with the first cargo of crude sold by rebels since their uprising began in February. Oil traders said the cargo, vital to fund the uprising, was headed for China.

Frozen assets
There was confusion on Thursday about the fighting near Brega, but one rebel fighter said government rockets had hit the town's western boundary.

Al Jazeera television said Gadhafi's forces were advancing on the town from the coast and the desert and rebels were trying to reinforce its western approaches. This could not immediately be confirmed.

Other insurgents said a 130-strong rebel force was about 25 km (15 miles) east of Brega, which has been fought over for a week with neither side able to make major gains.

A senior U.S. Treasury official said Washington had frozen more than $34 billion of Libyan assets as part of sanctions against Gadhafi and his top officials. European governments had also frozen a substantial amount he said.

Gadhafi appealed for a halt in the air campaign in a rambling three-page letter to U.S. President Barack Obama bluntly dismissed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday.

"Mr. Gadhafi knows what he must do," Clinton told a news conference with Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, reiterating calls for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of his forces from cities they have stormed and his departure from Libya.

Civil war in the vast North African desert oil producer ignited in February when Gadhafi tried to crush pro-democracy rallies against his 41-year-old rule inspired by uprisings that have toppled or endangered other rulers across the Arab world.

A senior aid worker said on Thursday desperate refugees from North Africa had dragged each other under water and drowned when an overloaded migrant boat sank off Sicily. Up to 250 people wre still missing from the capsized boat, which was said to have left Libya on Monday.



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