Libya: new fictional ceasefire; civilian casualties as propaganda pawns

US, French and British warplanes continued to strike targets in Libya March 21—including Qaddafi’s central compound, sparking accusations that Allied forces are trying to kill the Libyan leader. This was denied by the Pentagon, but Hillary Clinton stated: “We will continue to work with our partners in the international community to press Qaddafi to leave, and to support the legitimate aspirations of the Libyan people.” There were rumors that Qaddafi had been killed; he spoke the day before the strike to pledge resistance to the Allies’ “naked aggression,” but hasn’t been heard from since. The Libyan military announced a ceasefire, but this was met by skepticism. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said: “I sincerely hope and urge the Libyan authorities to keep their word. They have been continuing to attack the civilian population.” Rebel fighters trying to retake the eastern town of Ajdabiya said they were driven back by rocket and tank fire from government loyalists still controlling approaches to the city. Fighting was also reported from Misurata, the last western city held by the rebels.

Allied leaders also rejected claims from the Libyan media of some 50 civilians killed and many more wounded in the Allied strikes, while the rebels accused Qaddafi’s forces of using the civilian population as “human shields.” In Misurata, one resident said pro-Qaddafi forces were “taking people hostage.” Others told CNN that Qaddafi’s forces had wreaked “absolute destruction and carnage” on the city. “Misrata is being flattened and razed to the ground as we speak,” said one man. “They are shooting people in the main street.”

The US has deployed B-2 stealth bombers, F-16 and F-15 fighter jets and Harrier attack jets to strike Libyan ground forces, air defenses and airfields. Navy electronic warplanes, EA-18G Growlers, jammed Libyan radar and communications. US, French and British planes all conducted air raids around Benghazi and Misurata. Near Misurata, B-2 bombers destroyed aircraft shelters at an airfield, the Pentagon said.

An Indonesian newscaster, Andini Effendi, reported March 20 that she was able to visit two Tripoli hospitals after that day’s air-strikes and found no influx of casualties, only empty ambulances. Libyan officials promised that day to bring foreign journalists to a funeral for civilians killed in the attacks. But NDTV reported that the funeral turned out to be more of a pro-Qaddafi political rally, and the true number of dead remained a mystery.

US Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, on a flight to Russia, praised the mission’s “successful start,” but expressed concerns of a partitioned Libya, with rebels holding the east and Qaddafi the west. “I think all countries probably would like to see Libya remain a unified state,” Gates said. Gen. Carter F. Ham, who as the head of US Africa Command is overseeing the operation, said in an e-mai that “the initial strikes have had, generally, the effects we sought. Fixed air defense sites, particularly the longer-range systems, appear to no longer be operating.”

The US and French militaries both said that Qatar would join the military operation, which would be the first Arab military force to explicitly sign on. But there were no details on what role the Qatar forces would take. (NDTV, Reuters, PTI, CNN, CNN, Middle East Online, March 21; Technorati, March 20)

The Allied forces have thus far acted as individual nations in a de facto coalition, but London, Rome and several other alliance members are calling for a centralized NATO command. “We believe it’s time to move from a coalition of the willing towards a bit more coordinated approach under NATO,” Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told reporters ahead of talks with EU counterparts in Brussels. This is said to be opposed by France. (Middle East Online, March 21)

In Moscow, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin blasted the UN resolution for military action on Libya as resembling a “medieval call to crusade.” But this was quickly repudiated by President Dmitry Medvedev: “Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions which essentially lead to a clash of civilizations. Such as ‘crusade’ and so on,” Medvedev added that said he largely supported the resolution. (Middle East Online, March 21)

See our last posts on Libya and the regional revolutions.

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