At the organization’s headquarters in Brussels, NATO ambassadors held an unscheduled meeting Thursday to follow up on complaints from French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe that the Libya campaign risks getting bogged down unless the pace and efficiency of air support for rebel forces picks up.
The inability of either side to score a decisive victory has left the Obama administration and NATO in a quandary, facing decisions about whether to continue the mission of trying to protect civilians or to increase assistance to the opposition, aid that is currently limited to strikes from air and sea.
Attacks by Gaddafi’s forces began with strikes on desert oil installations that serve as the rebels’ economic lifeline, and they intensified Thursday with the fresh artillery bombardment of rebel positions in the eastern port of Ajdabiya, which sent many fighters fleeing.
The day also ignited new confusion and outrage among rebels in Ajdabiya after warplanes strafed rebel forces and killed at least five people, including two doctors. Rebels first accused NATO of targeting them but later said the attack probably came from Gaddafi’s forces. By Thursday night, it was still unclear who attacked the rebels from the sky.
Abdul Fattah Younis, the rebels’ commander, told reporters that if NATO had attacked their tanks, it was a mistake, and if Gaddafi’s airplanes had been allowed to strike them, it was an “even bigger mistake.”
Either way, NATO’s credibility among rebel forces, already battered since the United States took a back-seat role, appears to have sustained another blow. Rebels are questioning NATO’s resolve to help them.
The government attacks on oil installations in the remote southern desert appeared intended to take advantage of the limits of NATO’s involvement. Even as the rebels made their first oil shipment, a series of attacks on oil installations shut down production at the country’s main oil field of Sarir. An oil company official in rebel-held territory joined the calls Thursday for better protection from NATO.
Rebel fighters in Ajdabiya have grown accustomed to the Western alliance controlling the skies, so they were taken off guard Thursday when low-flying planes fired upon several tanks and a passenger bus loaded with fighters. Younis, the rebel commander, denounced what he called “a vicious attack” and said that the precision of the strikes led him to believe that NATO was responsible.
Outraged rebel fighters called the attack a repeat of an incident last Friday in which NATO bombs mistakenly killed 13 rebels and injured seven others. That incident was triggered when the rebels fired their weapons into the air in celebration — an act that NATO forces mistook for hostile fire.