Brussels (AFP) April 5, 2011
Western strikes have destroyed nearly a third of Libya's military assets, and NATO is now making the defence of the besieged city of Misrata a priority, an alliance general said Tuesday.
The bombing campaign that started on March 19 has prompted Moamer Kadhafi to change tactics, moving his forces in light vehicles and using human shields to protect heavy artillery from air strikes, said Brigadier General Mark van Uhm.
"We have taken out 30 percent of the military capacity of pro-Kadhafi forces," van Uhm told reporters, citing an assessment by the Libya operation's commander, Canadian Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard.
Van Uhm, NATO's chief of allied operations, said the pace of strikes has not slowed since NATO took command of bombing operations from a US-led coalition last Thursday on a UN mandate to protect civilians.
NATO planes have conducted 851 sorties since March 31, including 334 missions aimed at spotting or hitting potential targets on the ground, the alliance said.
The alliance launched 14 strikes on Monday alone, including "a number" that hit air defence systems, tanks and armoured vehicles in the area of Misrata, where rebels are holding out under siege from Kadhafi forces, van Uhm said.
"Misrata is a number one priority because of the situation on the ground over there," van Uhm said.
"We have confirmation that in Misrata tanks are being dispersed, being hidden, (and) human beings used as shields in order to prevent NATO sorties to identify targets," he said.
For more than 40 days the insurgents have defended Misrata, Libya's third largest city located 214 kilometres (132 miles) east of Tripoli, as it is besieged and pounded by Kadhafi's troops.
In other operations on Monday, the alliance struck a rocket launcher that was firing around the oil town of Brega, the general said.
Ammunition storage facilities were hit in other parts of the north African country.
"What we have seen is that pro-Kadhafi forces have changed their tactics over days, what we see is that they are more and more using trucks and light vehicles to move their personnel to the frontline," Van Uhm said.
"We are trying to identify where those heavy assets like tanks and armoured vehicles are because we have seen that they have chosen to hide in urban areas, even using human shields in order to not be targeted."
On Monday, three-quarters of NATO sorties came back without having deployed their weapons for various reasons, including partly because the Kadhafi artillery was located in populated areas, he said.
While NATO cannot hit the hidden artillery, their location has also made it impossible for Kadhafi's forces to use them, the general said.
Surveillance aircraft are keeping an eye on the ground to see if the heavy artillery comes out and needs to be taken out, he said, adding: "We are closely monitoring where they are."
earlier related report
Brigadier General Mark van Uhm said NATO did not carry out a formal investigation into last week's incident but that its "assessment" of what happened "has closed."
"We have looked into the incident and with all that we know today our assessment is that it has been an unfortunate accident," van Uhm, NATO's chief of allied operations, told a news briefing.
Van Uhm refused to say what type of aircraft were involved in the incident, or what country they were from.
The air raid on Friday killed 13 people, four of them civilians, some 15 kilometres (10 miles) east of the battleground Libyan oil town of Brega, a rebel official said last week.
"We have noted that the opposition forces have already stated that it was their fault, that there had been some celebratory fire in the air, which led to the reaction," he said.
The rebels have "learned their lesson" by moving "those very enthusiastic young people away from the frontline" and sending more experienced fighters instead, the general said.
"They have given clear directions that those celebratory fires should not be used anymore," he added.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu stressed that alliance forces have the right to defend themselves in any operation.
"We take any reports of civilian casualties very seriously, but clearly if somebody fires on our aircraft, those aircraft have the right to fire, it is their right of self defence," she said.
Issa Khamis, liaison officer for the rebels' transitional government in the town of Ajdabiya, east of Brega, told AFP last week that the strike stemmed from a "mistake" by the rebel fighters.
The strike came as rebel fighters were shooting tracer fire into the air to celebrate the entry of an advance column into Brega, he said.
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