AJDABIYA, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi’s forces fired rockets along the eastern front line and shelled the besieged city of Misrata Tuesday as France and Britain urged their NATO allies, including the United States, to intensify the campaign against the Libyan regime.
But hopes for a rebel military victory have faded and diplomatic efforts to find a solution were picking up momentum. On Wednesday, diplomats will gather in the tiny Gulf nation of Qatar for a meeting of the Libya contact group, which aims to coordinate an international response to the conflict.
On Monday, African leaders tried to broker a cease-fire but were immediately shot down when the opposition insisted that Gadhafi give up power immediately.
For his part, Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim insisted that any talk of Gadhafi stepping down, which has also been suggested by some European officials, was “imperialist” thinking and he lamented that the rebels had not followed suit in accepting the African proposal.
The Libyan rebels have proven to be far weaker and outnumbered by Gadhafi’s forces and without NATO airstrikes, they could face a crushing military defeat. So any realistic rebel hopes of unseating Gadhafi now rest firmly on international political pressure combined with sustained NATO airstrikes.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said NATO was not doing enough to ease the pressure on Misrata. He also said the alliance should be firing on the weapons being used by Gadhafi’s troops to target civilians in Misrata, the only city in western Libya that is still partially in the hands of rebels. International groups are warning of a dire humanitarian crisis in Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city.
Paris lamented the limited U.S. military role in Libya and chided Germany for its lack of involvement. In a dire analysis, France’s defense minister acknowledged that without full American participation in the combat operation, the West probably can’t stop Gadhafi’s attacks on besieged rebel cities.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague agreed that the allies must “intensify” their efforts.
France has played a particularly aggressive role in Libya in recent weeks, pushing diplomatically for a U.N. resolution to allow the international military operation and firing the first strikes in the campaign. France also was the first to recognize the Libyan opposition and to send a diplomatic envoy to the rebel-held city of Benghazi.
A NATO general rejected the criticism and said the alliance is performing well and protecting civilians.
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Dutch Brig. Gen. Mark Van Uhm said the alliance was successful in enforcing an arms embargo, patrolling a no fly zone and protecting civilians. “I think with the assets we have, we’re doing a great job,” he said.
NATO took over command of the operation over Libya from the U.S. on March 31.
NATO said Tuesday that its aircraft destroyed four tanks near Zintan, 75 miles (120 kilometers) southwest of the capital, Tripoli. A separate strike also destroyed an ammunition storage site southwest of Sirte, a Gadhafi stronghold and home to the Libyan leader’s tribe, the military alliance said.
British jets patrolling near Misrata also fired missiles and destroyed a tank, according to the U.K. military spokesman Maj. Gen. John Lorimer.
“We will continue to strike at the regime’s supplies and supply lines and reduce their ability to fight,” said the commander of the NATO operation, Canadian Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard.
In fighting on Tuesday, several rockets struck Ajdabiya, the main gateway town into the rebel-held east. Witnesses also reported shelling in Misrata.
Weeks of fierce government bombardment of Misrata have terrorized the city’s residents, killing dozens of people and leaving food and medical supplies scarce, according to residents, doctors and rights groups.
“Unfortunately, with the long-range war machines of Gadhafi forces, no place is safe in Misrata,” a medical official in Misrata told The Associated Press, asking that his name not be published for fear of reprisals. Six people were killed Monday and another corpse was brought in Tuesday, he said.
The Libyan government, however, maintained that the problems in Misrata were the work of terrorists and authorities were actually working to succor the populace of the city.
“The Libyan government is doing its best to help the people of Misrata and the foreign workers trapped there under the conditions imposed by the terrorists, by the armed gangs,” said spokesman Ibrahim.
Libyan opposition spokesman Ali al-Issawi said Gadhafi’s soldiers have killed about 10,000 people throughout the country and injured 30,000, with 7,000 of the injured facing life-threatening wounds. He said another 20,000 people were missing and suspected of being in Gadhafi’s prisons. However he did not say how he arrived at those number and there was no way to independently verify them given the restrictions on foreign journalists and international organizations operating inside Libya.
Previous estimates by human rights groups and others had much lower death tolls in the hundreds or a few thousand.
On the eve of the Libya contact group meeting in Qatar, the Gulf country confirmed it was behind last week’s sale of more than $100 million of crude oil from areas held by Libya’s rebels. Though not a surprise, the announcement underscores Qatar’s position as the most prominent Arab state supporting opposition forces seeking to topple Gadhafi.
Also Tuesday, a British government official said Libya’s former Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa is traveling to Qatar to share his insight on the workings of Gadhafi’s inner circle.
Koussa, who fled to England in late March, is the highest ranking member of Gadhafi’s regime to quit so far. He had been a longtime aide throughout Gadhafi’s 42-year rule.
Koussa has been asked to attend the conference on Libya being held in Doha as a valuable Gadhafi insider, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
MI6 agents stopped questioning Koussa last week, according to the official. Koussa had been staying in a safehouse until late Monday night, according to Noman Benotman, an ex-member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and relative of Koussa who has been in regular contact with the former foreign minister since he fled to Britain.
Although Koussa was provided with legal advice, Benotman said he believed he had “cleared most of the legal hurdles in the U.K.” surrounding his alleged involvement in the Lockerbie bombing and arming the IRA.
Britain’s Foreign Office confirmed the trip in a statement Tuesday, saying that Koussa was traveling today to Doha to meet with the Qatari government and a range of other Libyan representatives.