TRIPOLI (Reuters) – France and Britain, who first launched air attacks on Libya in coalition with the United States, said on Tuesday NATO must step up bombing of Muammar Gaddafi’s heavy weapons to protect civilians.
NATO took over air operations from the three nations on March 31 but heavy government bombardment of the besieged western city of Misrata has continued unabated with hundreds of civilians reported killed.
The criticism by London andParis followed new shelling of Misrata on Monday and the collapse of an African Unionpeace initiative.
Echoing rebel complaints, Juppe told France Info radio, “It’s not enough.”
He said NATO must stop Gaddafi shelling civilians and take out heavy weapons bombarding Misrata.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague also said NATO must intensify attacks, calling on other alliance countries to match London’s supply of extra ground attack aircraft in Libya.
NATO, which stepped up air strikes around Misrata and the eastern battlefront city ofAjdabiyah at the weekend under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians, rejected the criticism.
“NATO is conducting its military operations in Libya with vigor within the current mandate. The pace of the operations is determined by the need to protect the population,” it said.
Libyan state television said on Tuesday a NATO strike on the town of Kikla, south ofTripoli, had killed civilians and members of the police force. It did not give details.
PEACE TALKS FAIL
The spat within the alliance came after heavy shelling and street fighting in the coastal city of Misrata on Monday where Human Rights Watch says at least 250 people, mostly civilians, have died.
Libyan rebels rejected an African Union peace plan on Monday because it did not include the removal of Gaddafi, who they accused of indiscriminate attacks on his own people.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, hailed as a hero by the rebels, led calls for military intervention in Libya and his warplanes were the first to attack Gaddafi’s forces.
In a barbed reference to the NATO takeover, Juppe added: “NATO must play its role fully. It wanted to take the lead in operations, we accepted that.”
NATO is unpopular among many insurgents, both because they believe it initially reacted slowly to government attacks and because it has killed almost 20 rebels in two mistaken bombings.
Although they have recently praised the alliance after its attacks helped break a major government assault on Ajdabiyah, many of the rebels in the field still hailed Sarkozy.
The rebels took up position about 40 km (25 miles) west of Ajdabiyah on Tuesday after clashes on Monday that left at least three of their fighters dead in a rocket attack.
There was no sign of fighting on Tuesday between Ajdabiyah and the oil port of Brega where the eastern front has see-sawed between the combatants for weeks.
The Red Cross said it would send a team to Misrata to help civilians trapped by fighting.
Rebel leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil said after talks with an African peace mission in rebel-held Benghazi on Monday:
“The African Union initiative does not include the departure of Gaddafi and his sons from the Libyan political scene, therefore it is outdated.”
The AU said in a statement it would continue the mission.
Gaddafi’s son Saif ruled out his father stepping down, calling the idea ridiculous.
Amnesty International on Tuesday accused Gaddafi forces of executing prisoners, killing protesters and attacking refugees.
Rebels in Misrata, their last major bastion in western Libya and under siege for six weeks, scorned reports that Gaddafi had accepted a ceasefire, saying they were fighting house-to-house battles with his forces.
Rebels told Reuters that Gaddafi’s forces had intensified the assault, for the first time firing truck-mounted, Russian-made Grad rockets into the city, where conditions for civilians are said to be desperate.
NATO attacks outside Ajdabiyah on Sunday helped break the biggest assault by Gaddafi’s forces on the eastern front for at least a week. The town is the gateway to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi 150 km (90 miles) north up the Mediterranean coast.
Gaddafi’s former foreign minister Moussa Koussa, speaking in Britain where he fled last month, called on “everybody, all the parties, to work to avoid taking Libya into a civil war.”
“This will lead to bloodshed and make Libya a new Somalia,” he told the BBC. “More than that we refuse to divide Libya. The unity of Libya is essential to any solution and any settlement in Libya.”
(Additional reporting by Michael Georgy in Ajdabiyah, Souhail Karam and Richard Lough in Rabat, Christian Lowe in Algiers and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Barry Moody; Editing by Jon Hemming)
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