Gates hints at bombing risk to Gadhafi
The U.S. took its first steps Tuesday short of military assistance to aid Libyan rebels, even as Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that Libyan military command centers “wherever we find them” are legitimate targets for U.S. and NATO air attack, suggesting that strongman Moammar Gadhafi himself is increasingly in danger.
The Obama administration eased its sanctions on Libya, a move that will allow the opposition forces to sell the oil it controls and use the income to buy weapons and other supplies. The White House also ordered the expenditure of up to $25 million in surplus, nonlethal goods and commodities to support and protect the rebels.
At a joint news conference with British Defense Minister Liam Fox, Gates said that NATO planes are not targeting Gadhafi specifically but will continue to take aim at his command centers.
Aboard the Red Star 1 Libyan government forces on Tuesday bombarded the port of Misrata, in a virtually nonstop assault on the sole lifeline of a battered population that has been under siege for the past two months.
While forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi pulled out of the city over the weekend under pressure from NATO airstrikes, they have since unleashed a withering rocket and mortar barrage on Misrata that has killed dozens. The bombardment Tuesday was constant throughout the afternoon and into the evening, and loud explosions could be heard thundering across the city.
“It was horrific, like a scene from World War II,” said resident Saddoun el-Misurati who was waiting to evacuate his mother from the port when the rockets began to fall. “I stopped counting after nine.”
Hundreds of residents, including migrant African laborers, had been waiting at the port for the expected afternoon arrival of the Red Star 1, an Albanian ship chartered by the International Organization of Migration to evacuate people from the besieged city.
The crowd gathered on the docks scrambled for cover when the rockets began falling, hiding in cars and shipping crates or just fleeing the port area, said el-Misurati.
Even after sundown, Gadhafi’s forces continued to shell the port.
Abdullah Abodabbous, a 25-year-old from Benghazi, said he was trying to leave on a small, previously arranged vessel when a barrage of at least 10 Grad rockets slammed into the port around 9 p.m., forcing him to hide under a table in offices near the main entrance.
With Gadhafi’s troops besieging the city on all sides by land, the port has become a key point in the battle for Misrata.
It has served as a lifeline for the city, allowing in desperately needed medical supplies and food and ferrying out residents looking to flee the fierce fighting that has left swaths of the city in ruins.
Tuesday’s assault by pro-Gadhafi forces temporarily suspended the flow of aid and people.
The battle for Misrata, which has claimed hundreds of lives in the past two months, has become the focal point of the armed rebellion against Gadhafi since fighting on the eastern front near the city of Ajdabiya is deadlocked.