A fresh wave of air raids by Western forces backed by a naval arms embargo has, so far, failed to shift the battle lines between lightly armed opposition forces and heavily armed troops loyal to Libyan strongman Muammar Qadhafi.
Over the last 24 hours, neither side has made tangible military gains across Libya. In besieged Misurata, Libya's third largest city 200 km east of capital Tripoli, two air strikes were launched on Wednesday to weaken the grip of pro-Qadhafi forces. The attacks managed to silence the heavy weapons that were targeting the opposition with sustained artillery and mortar fire. Yet, the raids have apparently not been powerful enough to encourage anti-Qadhafi forces to try and recover some of the lost military ground.
For nine days, Misurata has been denied water and electricity, residents say. Telecommunication links were snapped by the pro-Qadhafi forces nearly three weeks ago. A doctor at the central Misurata hospital said 13 residents had died on Tuesday, scaling up the total casualty toll to 90.
As the pro-Qadhafi forces have advanced, snipers, whose presence has pushed the heavily stressed and fearful residents of Misurata on edge, have been perched atop tall buildings.
Air strikes have also been launched in Ajdabiyah, a strategically significant junction mostly held by pro-Qadhafi forces. However, the effectiveness of air raids in the city, and in an urban landscape in general, is far from clear. On Wednesday, Libyan forces were shelling opposition forces with greater intensity than the day earlier — a possible indication that the air strikes might not have impaired their supply lines. On the road to Ajdabiyah from Benghazi — the epicentre of the anti-Qadhafi revolt —on Wednesday, rebel fighters, high on motivation but low on training, could be seen launching sporadic attacks that were easily repulsed by the superior fire power of regime troops. The escalation of shelling in Ajdabiyah forced terror-stricken residents to flee in droves and seek safer havens.
Ahead of the air strikes on Misurata, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, an American naval officer commanding the tactical mission in Libya, had said citing intelligence reports that Mr. Qadhafi's forces were targeting civilians in the city. Analysts say in doing so the Admiral appeared to justify the upcoming air strikes, which are permitted under the United Nations Security Council resolution when civilian lives are on the line.
Contrary to the statements of impending de-escalation, western air strikes in Libyan skies spiralled on Tuesday. According to figures released by the Pentagon, western forces carried out 57 strikes, the maximum since Saturday when the air assaults began. The United States also announced it was focusing on widening the no-fly zone area to cover entire Libya — a move that pointed to the expansion of air operations.
Five days after their attacks, Western forces have also reinforced the naval dimension of their operations.
A NATO spokesman said warships of the alliance would now patrol off the Libyan coast to deny weapons to the Qadhafi regime. Initially, NATO would deploy two naval flotillas, each consisting of two frigates, six minesweepers and a supply ship.
Away from the battlefield, and inclined to play mind-games, Mr. Qadhafi appeared on state television on Tuesday night to pre-empt possible rumours about his well-being after Sunday's air strikes on his residential compound. “I am here, in my modest tent,” Mr. Qadhafi told his supporters. He added: “This assault is by a bunch of fascists who will end up in the dustbin of history.”