(Reuters) – Rebels massed for a counter-attack against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in eastern Libya on Thursday, encouraged by news of covert U.S. support and the defection of Tripoli’s foreign minister.
“We are beginning to see the Gaddafi regime crumble,” rebel spokesman Mustafa Gheriani said in the eastern town of Benghazi, while stopping short of welcoming fugitive foreign minister Moussa Koussa, a former spy chief, into the rebel fold.
Analysts agreed the defection of Koussa, who flew to London on Wednesday, was a blow to Gaddafi, whose forces have gained ground in recent days.
But the top U.S. military officer told Congress Gaddafi was far from beaten. “We have actually fairly seriously degraded his military capabilities,” Admiral Mike Mullen said. “That does not mean he’s about to break from a military standpoint.”
Despite almost two weeks of Western air strikes, Gaddafi’s troops have used superior arms and tactics to push back rebels trying to edge westward along the coast from their eastern stronghold of Benghazi toward the capital Tripoli.
News that U.S. officials told Reuters that President Barack Obama had authorised covert operations in Libya raised the prospect of wider support for the rebels.
Experts assume special forces are on the ground identifying targets for air strikes. Public confirmation from Washington may indicate a willingness for greater involvement.
The rebels, whose main call is for weapons — not authorised yet by Washington because of a U.N. arms embargo which NATO says it is enforcing — said they knew nothing about Western troops in Libya and that too big a foreign role could be damaging.
“It would undermine our credibility,” Gheriani said.
Obama’s order is likely to further alarm countries already concerned that air strikes on infrastructure and ground troops by the United States, Britain and France go beyond a U.N. resolution with the stated aim only of protecting civilians.
“I can’t speak to any CIA activities but I will tell you that the president has been quite clear that in terms of the United States military there will be no boots on the ground,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.
The top Vatican official in the Libyan capital cited witnesses on Thursday saying at least 40 civilians had been killed in Western air strikes on Tripoli.
NATO said it was investigating but had no confirmation of the report. Libya’s state news agency, citing military sources, said Western air strikes had hit a civilian area in the capital overnight, but did not mention casualties.
Rebels said Gaddafi loyalists had killed 38 civilians over the past two days alone in Misrata, the only town in western Libya still under rebel control. “Massacres are taking place in Misrata,” a rebel spokesman called Sami said by telephone.
Britain said it was focusing air strikes around Misrata, which has been under siege from government forces for weeks. Rebels say snipers and tank fire have killed dozens of people.
About 1,000 people are believed to have been killed in clashes between supporters and opponents of Gaddafi since the uprising against his 41-year-old rule began on February 17, the British government said.
The rag-tag forces fighting Gaddafi say they desperately need more arms and ammunition to supplement supplies grabbed from government depots. The United States, France and Britain have raised the possibility, but say no decision has been taken.
NATO, which took over formal command of the air campaign on Thursday, said it would enforce a U.N. arms embargo on all sides: “We are there to protect the Libyan people, not to arm the people,” NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Stockholm.
More Western military help may strengthen the rebels on the battlefield but at the price of a propaganda boost for Gaddafi, quick to portray his foes as lackeys of the West.
Rebels driven back by a hail of rocket fire to a spot outside the eastern oil town of Brega, where there were clashes at dawn, were keen to stress they would fight on with or without Western help, despite their military setback this week.
“God willing there will be more air strikes today, but we will advance no matter what,” said Muneim Mustafa, a fighter with an AK-47 rifle slung over his shoulder.
They were also wary of any attempt by Koussa to negotiate immunity, saying Gaddafi and his entourage must be held accountable: “We want to see them brought to justice,” senior rebel national council official Abdel Hameed Ghoga told Reuters.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Koussa was not being offered immunity but encouraged others around Gaddafi to follow suit. “Gaddafi must be asking himself who will be the next to abandon him,” he told a news conference.
That question was answered soon afterwards when former Libyan foreign minister Ali Abdussalam Treki — appointed by Gaddafi to replace his U.N. ambassador, who defected in February — refused to take up the job.
Treki condemned the “spilling of blood,” in a statement send to Reuters.
While British officials hope Koussa will provide military and diplomatic intelligence, Scottish officials and campaigners want him to shed light on the 1988 Pan Am airliner bombing over Lockerbie in Scotland, which killed 259 people, mostly Americans, on the plane and 11 on the ground. A Libyan citizen was convicted over the bombing.
Pamela Dix, whose brother was among those killed, said if Libya was responsible for Lockerbie then Koussa was too, adding: “He should not be a free man in this country.”
Analysts agree Koussa’s defection is significant but note Gaddafi’s inner circle consists of family members who may resort to more violence to stay in power.
A government spokesman said Gaddafi and all his sons would stay “until the end.” Koussa had been “exhausted,” he said, adding: “I don’t think his sick leave included London.”
Libya’s top oil official said on Thursday he remained in Tripoli and the country was continuing to produce some oil, although output was much reduced. Shipping industry sources say oil shipments from Libya are at a standstill.
Gates said Gaddafi’s removal was “not part of the military mission” by coalition forces and Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Western military action would not oust him.
“It is not through actions of war that we can make Gaddafi leave, but rather through strong international pressure to encourage defections by people close to him,” Frattini said.
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, William Maclean, Adrian Croft, Maria Golovnina, Edmund Blair, Ibon Villelabeitia, Lamine Chikhi, Hamid Ould Ahmed, Marie-Louise Gumuchian, Avril Ormsby, Aly Eldaly and Niklas Pollard; writing by Philippa Fletcher and Andrew Roche; editing by Mark Trevelyan)