BENGHAZI, Libya (AFP) – Rebels bogged down in their bid to oust Moamer Kadhafi on Friday hailed a US decision to deploy armed drones over Libya, as Senator John McCain urged the world to recognise the rebels’ council.
The US military’s top officer, meanwhile, said between 30 and 40 percent of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi’s forces had been destroyed in allied air strikes.
“I am sure that NATO forces will continue to attrite the military capability of the regime forces,” Admiral Michael Mullen told reporters in Baghdad.
The rebels welcomed the US drones initiative.
“We are so pleased,” media liaison official for the rebels’ Transitional National Council (TNC), Mustafa Gheriani, told AFP in their eastern stronghold of Benghazi.
“We hope that this can bring some relief to the people in Misrata,” he added of the rebel-held city in western Libya which has been pounded by Kadhafi’s forces for more than six weeks, killing hundreds.
A NATO official said the drones would give the allies more options, especially in urban warfare.
“Predator drones bring unique capabilities that allow NATO to strike with care and precision even as the Kadhafi regime shows complete disregard for human life by trying to hide military assets in urban areas such as Misrata,” he said.
“The use of drones will make it easier to target Kadhafi forces in crowded urban areas. A vehicle like the Predator, that can get down lower and can get IDs, will better help us carrying out the mission with precision and care.”
Rebels, who on Thursday overran a post on the Tunisian border in their first advance in weeks against Kadhafi’s forces, have complained that civilians are being killed in places like Misrata.
“Our houses are being hit by bombs and rockets,” said 45-year-old Ibrahim Issa Abu Hajjar, who fled Misrata with hundreds of civilians aboard a Turkish ferry to Benghazi.
The International Committee of the Red Cross on Friday issued a stark warning about the situation in Misrata.
“The humanitarian situation could rapidly deteriorate further and the lack of basic services such as water, electricity, food and medical care could turn critical,” warned Simon Brooks, ICRC head of mission in Benghazi.
The first deployment of the unmanned drones was slated for Thursday but was called off because of bad weather.
Libya’s deputy foreign minister Khaled Kaim slammed the deployment. “They will kill more civilians,” he told BBC radio.
“This is very sad… they are claiming they are supporting democracy, (but) supporting democracy, I think, is helping people to sit together and talk together and have a serious dialogue for the future.
“It’s for the Libyans” to decide their future, “not by air strikes and sending money to the rebels,” Kaim said.
Meanwhile three explosions were heard at 1615 GMT in western Tripoli, followed minutes later by several more, said an AFP journalist.
McCain, a Republican former presidential candidate who has lobbied for greater US involvement in a UN-mandated NATO air campaign aimed at preventing Kadhafi’s forces from attacking civilians, met the rebel leaders in Benghazi.
He was greeted at their city centre headquarters by a small crowd who chanted, “Libya free, Kadhafi go away — thank you America, thank you Obama.”
President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, which on March 10 became the first country to recognise the TNC, on Friday signalled his agreement “in principle” to follow in McCain’s footsteps and visit Benghazi.
McCain, the highest-ranking US politician to visit the rebel-held east since the popular uprising began in mid-February, later urged the world to recognise the TNC as the “legitimate voice of the Libyan people.”
“They have earned this right,” he told a news conference. “I met with all the key leaders of the Council and applaud their remarkable progress in their struggle for liberation.”
McCain also said he supported intensified air strikes by high precision planes against Kadhafi’s fighters, but opposed deploying ground troops, saying rebels would be better served by command and control support and intelligence.
Rebels have been held back by government troops for more than three weeks in eastern Libya and suffered heavy losses in Misrata.
Rebel leaders there have pleaded for foreign help, saying the air strikes are not enough to dislodge Kadhafi troops hiding in civilian areas and fighting street by street.
France, Italy and Britain have said they would send military personnel to eastern Libya, but only to advise the rebels on technical, logistical and organisational matters and not to engage in combat.
The French foreign ministry said Friday that the European Union is planning for a possible military intervention to bring aid to Misrata despite UN reservations.
“Faced with the worsening humanitarian situation, in particular in Misrata, the multinational general staff in Rome is continuing to plan for a military operation to support humanitarian aid,” spokeswoman Christine Fages said.
“The European Union is ready to respond to any UN request.”
Massive Libyan protests in February — inspired by the revolts that toppled longtime autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia — escalated into war when Kadhafi’s troops fired on demonstrators and protesters seized several eastern towns.
The battle lines have been more or less static in recent weeks, however, as NATO air strikes have helped block Kadhafi’s eastward advance but failed to give the poorly organised and lightly armed rebels a decisive victory.
Gambia, meanwhile, said on Friday it was recognising the TNC as the only legitimate body representing Libyan interests, and expelling Tripoli’s diplomats.
It became the fourth country after France, Italy and Qatar to recognise the TNC.
The UN refugee agency said on Friday that some 15,000 people had fled fighting in western Libya into Tunisia in the past two weeks and a much larger exodus was feared.
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