BENGHAZI: Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi on Friday surrounded Zlitan, one of only three towns separating the opposition-held city of Misrata from the capital Tripoli, an opposition military spokesman said. “Large numbers of troops are surrounding Zlitan from all directions and are threatening its residents with having their women raped by mercenaries if they do not surrender,” Ahmed Bani, military spokesman, told Reuters by phone from Benghazi.
Zlitan could act as a stepping stone to allow the anti-Qaddafi uprising to spread from Misrata, the biggest opposition outpost in western Libya, to Qaddafi’s stronghold in Tripoli. Bani said the troops around Zlitan were equipped with artillery and Grad rockets. Meanwhile, Libyan government forces pounded the outskirts of Misrata on Friday, killing at least 22 people, a hospital physician said. The doctor at Hikma Hospital, who would only give his first name, Ayman, said Qaddafi’s forces used tanks, artillery and incendiary rockets in the bombardment of Dafniya, about 30 km west of Misrata.
He said at least 61 people were wounded in the attacks which began about 10 a.m. local time. The doctor said residents had reported no sign of NATO aircraft in the Misrata region. There also were no reports NATO strikes in Tripoli, the capital. NATO had been pounding Tripoli and environs in recent days, stepping up backing for the four-month-old uprising that seeks to oust Qaddafi from power after four decades. Rebels have taken control of swaths of eastern Libya, although fighting has since come to a stalemate even with NATO support. Misrata remained one of the most important opposition footholds in the Qaddafi controlled west.
Government forces are surrounding Misrata on all sides but the north, where the city has access to the Mediterranean Sea for supplies and food through Libya’s major port. Opposition fighters have beaten back several government attempts to retake the city. The Qaddafi forces are pushing back on opposition forces trying to break out of Misrata to the west toward Tripoli, where Qaddafi is increasingly cornered under NATO bombardment in the capital.
An opposition fighter in Misrata who identifies himself only as Abdel-Salem said Qaddafi’s sons, Khamis and Al-Moatassem, and top aid Abdullah Al-Senoussi are in command of the operation in Zlitan, about 15 km from Dafinya. They are dug in trying to stop the opposition advance out of Misrata. “The situation is very bad there. Qaddafi sent huge forces to Zlitan to fortify the city because he knows that if Zlitan falls in the hands of the opposition fighters, the way to Tripoli will be wide open,” Abdel-Salam said. “Now the ball is in the court of NATO, but we have not seen any NATO planes flying over despite the fierce battle.” According to Abdel-Salam, a bulk of Zlitan residents are Qaddafi loyalists.
US Sen. Carl Levin spoke of the degredation of Qaddafi’s forces Friday after a classified briefing by senior Pentagon officials in Washington. The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said Qaddafi’s military and political standing had been weakened by NATO air attacks. Levin said administration officials offered no predictions on how long the war would last or when Qaddafi might go. He said NATO helicopters, likely British and French, have been taking out tanks without collateral damage.
In Norway, meanwhile, military officials said on Friday the country would scale down its fighter jet contribution the NATO force flying above Libya from six to four planes and withdraw completely from the NATO-led operation by Aug. 1. The Dutch government, however, has continue its forces’ role in the NATO campaign through the end of the three month extension the alliance announced last week. It also plans to contribute a handful of new staff. – Arabnews