Nato airstrikes helping Libyan rebels gain ground


Rebel fighters made significant gains Monday against forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in both the western and eastern areas of the country, in the first faint signs that NATO airstrikes may be starting to strain the government forces.

In the besieged western city of Misurata hundreds of rebels broke through one of the front lines late on Sunday, and by Monday afternoon were consolidating their position on the ground a few miles to the city’s west.

The breakout of what had been nearly static lines came after NATO aircraft spent days striking positions and military equipment held by the Qaddafi forces, weakening them to the point that a ground attack was possible, the rebels said.

While not in itself a decisive shift for a city that remained besieged, the swift advance, made with few rebel casualties, carried both signs of rebel optimism and hints of the weakness of at least one frontline loyalist unit.

But more potential signs of loyalist weakness emerged in a battle near the eastern oil town of Brega, where rebel fighters killed more than 36 Qaddafi soldiers and destroyed more than 10 vehicles, according to a senior rebel military official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about military operations. Six rebel fighters died in the battle, the official said, adding that the rebel troops retreated east from Brega after the attack on orders from NATO, presumably in advance of airstrikes.

While the rebels’ tally of the dead could not be independently verified, if accurate it would seem to represent — after the protracted battle for Tripoli Street in Misurata last month — one of the largest tolls of Qaddafi soldiers killed in a single battle since February. The battlefield success, if confirmed, might also signal a change in tactics — or at least fortunes — for the reorganized Free Libya Forces, as the eastern fighters now prefer to be called.

In an effort to prove their reach is nationwide, and not limited to eastern Libya, rebel leaders arranged a meeting Monday of 25 local council leaders, representing areas of central, western and southern Libya. The leaders, meeting in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, expressed their support for the uprising and their recognition of the rebel National Transitional Council and its leader, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, Libya’s former justice minister.

Signs of an enemy in disarray were evident in Misurata as the rebels moved west — abandoned green uniforms, abandoned food and houses along the road with interiors full of human waste, as if the Qaddafi soldiers, under threat of air attack, had been afraid to venture outside.

Inside the shattered ruins of one compound, a petting zoo and poultry-breeding center, the unburied body of a Qaddafi soldier, at least several days old, was sprawled face down on the ground not far from a rotting ostrich, still in its cage.

The rebels had stopped in the afternoon just short of the town of Ad Dafniyah, where they took up positions with rifles and machine-gun trucks against a Qaddafi position that blocked their way.

The Qaddafi soldiers raked the air over the rebels’ heads with machine-gun fire and dropped mortar rounds, grenades from automatic launchers and rockets in the field and stands of trees around the rebels, to little effect. The rebels said they had surrounded a few holdout Qaddafi positions and would soon push on, to Ad Dafniyah.

In recent weeks, the siege of Misurata has been fought on four principal fronts — the one here is to the city’s west. The others include a wide and winding front line around the airport, which the Qaddafi soldiers still occupy, and two to the east and southeast, from where Qaddafi forces have been firing ground-to-ground rockets on the seaport, the city’s lifeline to the world.

The breakout in the west did not appear to have an immediate effect elsewhere. At the front near the airport, a commander there said that his fighters were in a strong position, but that he wanted them to move methodically because the Qaddafi soldiers had taken up strong defensive positions on both sides of the main road.

“Even now we could push them out,” the commander said. “But we are careful because we would lose many lives. So we will wait until we finish our plan.” The commander, a former lieutenant colonel in the Qaddafi military, asked that his name be withheld to prevent retaliation against his relatives elsewhere in Libya.

The area around the seaport and the city’s fuel terminal also remained under pressure on Monday.

Late last week, the port was struck by ground-to-ground rockets that scattered land mines over part of the harbor. The fuel terminal was hit early Saturday by a separate barrage of high-explosive Grad rockets, at least one of which ignited three storage tanks, causing a fire that still burned on Monday.

Hafed Makhlouf, the port’s supervisor, said late on Monday that the harbor had not been shelled in more than a day, and that the port was open. NATO warships had helped by searching the channel with sonar, he said, and by assigning a minesweeper to clear the approach to the jetties at the harbor’s mouth.

“The situation for the moment is O.K.,” Mr. Makhlouf said.

Two vessels — an aid ship and a fishing boat carrying rebel supplies — entered the harbor on Monday and tied off at its piers, the first to arrive there since last Wednesday.

A few minutes after Mr. Makhlouf spoke, three mortar or artillery rounds exploded nearby — a reminder that no matter the success at the city’s western front, at the eastern front the Qaddafi forces remained within range.

Later in the evening, more shells landed in the city, apparently fired from the vicinity of the airport. One of them struck a civilian neighborhood, wounding four women and two children.

Rebel fighters said the advance to the west was significant. On at least this front, the Qaddafi forces were now outside of mortar range of the city, they said, and approaching the edge of the range of many of their heavier weapons.

The rebels have said that pushing the Qaddafi forces out of the range of Grad rockets has been one of their immediate tactical goals. That would be about 12 miles for the varieties the loyalists are known to possess, though newer generations of the rockets can fly more than 20 miles.

And as more rebel forces flowed westward — hundreds of fighters were on the road outside Ad Dafniyah on Monday afternoon — they spoke of pushing even farther, and trying to connect with supporters in towns to the west, and demonstrating to other Libyans that the Qaddafi military could be broken.

Outside the airport, the commander dared a sentence that mixed prediction with hope. “I think the days of Qaddafi are now shorter,” he said. “Maybe he has only a few weeks more.”