Air strikes fail to make headway

The enthusiasm for air strikes appeared to have waned after a second “friendly fire” incident was reported. Opposition forces on Thursday were apparently furious, claiming that NATO aircraft, for the second time in a week, had mistakenly bombed dissident fighters, killing seven. The erroneous attack, probably the result of poor communication with the overflying aircraft, was launched when opposition fighters were moving towards the frontline, heavy armour, which they had earlier captured from the pro-Qadhafi forces.

NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said reports about the incident were being investigated. NATO planes had in the same area, last Friday, killed nine opposition fighters and four civilians, after the pilots mistaking celebratory firing for an attack, fired in self-defence.

The New York Times is reporting an assessment by a Pentagon official that the use of air power alone is unlikely to prove decisive. “The military capabilities available to Qadhafi remain quite substantial,” the daily quoted a senior Pentagon official saying. “What this shows is that you cannot guarantee tipping the balance of ground operations only with bombs and missiles from the air.”

Unsurprisingly, the United States and Italy are each seriously considering arming Libyan opposition forces, following closed-door talks in Washington between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and visiting Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, Bloomberg reported.

France, which took the lead in launching air strikes on regime targets, on Thursday, exhorted other nations to set in motion an energetic effort to find a “political solution” to end the crisis. “Qadhafi has clearly lost all legitimacy, his camp is disintegrating and we are seeing new defections every day. On the other hand his force and rebel forces continue to fight each other without any side winning,” said Foreign Minister Alain Juppe.

Despite the military stalemate, the “oil factor” had by Thursday imparted a sharper edge to the conflict. As the first shipment of oil departed from an export terminal near opposition-held Tobruk for an overseas destination, there were a flurry of accusations about the damage caused to the oil fields. The opposition accused the pro-Qadhafi forces of attacking the giant oil fields of Misla and Sarir, which are part of the Sirte basin, holding nearly 80 per cent of Libya's crude reserves.

These attacks over the last three days had severely curtailed the existing daily production of 100,000 barrels, said opposition spokesman Abdul Hafidh Ghoga. Mr. Ghoga added that around one million barrels were in storage in Tobruk, which Qatar is helping to export.

By selling crude, the opposition hopes to reinforce its credentials as Libya's de facto government. An accumulation of funds through oil sales would provide the opposition, the resources to run its administration, purchase weapons and undertake post-conflict reconstruction.

Rejecting the charge that it was damaging its own precious national assets, the government deflected the blame on Britain, which it said had ordered its planes to target the oil fields. “It is an aggression against the oil infrastructure of Libya,” said Khalid Kaim, the Deputy Foreign Minister, in Tripoli. He called the oil export from Tobruk that Qatar had facilitated as a “piracy operation.”

Wading into the controversy, NATO asserted that Mr. Qadhafi's forces were aiming to disrupt oil supplies from the fields to Tobruk. NATO stressed that its jets, which had not operated in the area, couldn't have caused the fire at the Sarir oil field.

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