Libya opposition says it will use aid to buy arms

May 6, 2011

A Libyan opposition leader said Friday that rebels plan to use money pledged for humanitarian and reconstruction needs to buy weapons from the Italian government, a claim an Italian official denied.

Abdul Hafidh Ghoga, the main spokesman for the opposition Transitional National Council, said shipments of weapons would begin arriving in rebel-held eastern Libya “within days.”

“We still have ongoing negotiations with France to send us arms, too,” he told reporters in Benghazi, the opposition’s de facto capital. Ghoga declined to specify what types of weapons the rebels plan to buy, saying that was “a military secret.”

At a meeting this week in Rome, 22 NATO and Arab countries agreed to set up a fund to manage donations to help areas controlled by the rebels, who are trying to end Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s 41-year rule. Ghoga said money requested at the meeting would be used to pay for the weapons.

But the Italian official, who is familiar with negotiations with the Libyan opposition, said Italy’s position had not changed.

“We only provide equipment for self-defense, such as bulletproof vests,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “As was confirmed in Rome yesterday, we are focusing on the financial mechanism to help them to pay salaries, fund their administrative activities, etc.”

Senior State Department officials said they had not been informed that Italy was sending arms to the rebels, which the United States and several other countries say is permissible under U.N. resolutions on Libya.

They said, however, that the fund established in Rome was for humanitarian and reconstruction needs, not weapons. The officials were not authorized to comment on the record.

Meanwhile, the human rights group Amnesty International alleged in a report issued Friday that the Libyan army committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in the besieged rebel-held city of Misurata by deliberately targeting and killing civilians.

Indiscriminate and widespread attacks against civilians — combined with the practice of using residential areas to “shield” tanks from NATO airstrikes, the systematic shooting of peaceful protesters and the disappearance of perceived opponents — suggest that war crimes were committed, the human rights group said.

“The scale of the relentless attacks that we have seen by al-Gaddafi forces to intimidate the residents of Misurata for more than two months is truly horrifying,” Amnesty’s Donatella Rovera said. “It shows a total disregard for the lives of ordinary people and is in clear breach of international humanitarian law.’’

There was no immediate response from Gaddafi’s government. But for weeks, the regime has repeatedly argued that it was not shelling Misurata or using any heavy munitions on the city, despite daily witness accounts to the contrary from foreign aid workers, journalists, residents and human rights workers.

Mohamed Ali, a rebel spokesman in Misurata, said the shelling of the port was discouraging foreign reporters and camera crews from coming to the city. “We fear that Misurata’s story will not be told to the world,” he said, speaking via Skype. “This is a major success for the tyrant.”

Misurata, the only major city in western Libya still in rebel hands, is an important and strategic prize in Libya’s civil war. Two weeks ago, rebels chased Libyan government forces out of central Misurata, although the shelling has continued from bases on the outskirts.

Since then, the government has been threatening a counterattack led by tribal militia, something Ali said he fears will amount to an assault by “soldiers in civilian clothes.”

Gaddafi “is preparing something menacing, I think,” Ali said. “And there is no one on the ground to report it.”

Walker is a special correspondent. Staff writers Joby Warrick in Washington and Mary Beth Sheridan in Shannon, Ireland, and correspondent Simon Denyer in Tripoli contributed to this report.

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