Breaking the Siege

Libya's rebels arm their compatriots in Misrata to take on Qaddafi's tanks.


BENGHAZI, Libya — As fighting rages in the western Libyan city of Misrata, the scene of a bloody siege that has killed as many as 1,000 people and wounded perhaps thousands more, a rebel official revealed that the anti-regime forces in Libya’s east had covertly inserted into the city a team tasked with neutralizing Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi’s heavy weaponry.

"We have provided [the anti-Qaddafi forces in Misrata] with 10 people," Kamal Hodaifa, the liaison between the civilian and military wings of the rebels’ Transitional National Council, told me. "We’ve provided them with 164 anti-tank weapons, and they’ve all been trained for only one week."

Hodaifa said that the team’s primary purpose was to train the Misrata rebels in anti-tank tactics. He also claimed, however, that they have made progress in destroying Qaddafi’s military assets on their own.

Misrata, which has been the scene of intense urban warfare since Feb. 18, remains the lone rebel holdout in western Libya. The rebels are boxed in by Qaddafi’s forces, which control all points of entry into the city by land, and the Mediterranean Sea to their backs. The front line in the struggle is now Tripoli Street, the highway that connects Misrata to the Libyan capital. U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister David Cameron condemned Qaddafi’s "medieval siege" of Misrata in a letter released on April 15.

Hodaifa said that the rebel forces in eastern Libya had secretively worked to supply their compatriots in Misrata with assistance since Feb. 22. The supplies have all come across the Mediterranean, carried by tugboats. Hodaifa estimated that 28 tugboats, carrying both humanitarian assistance and weaponry, have so far been sent from the east to assist the rebels in Misrata. Another tugboat was sent as recently as Saturday, April 16, he said.

The rebels’ use of the naval route has proved problematic for NATO, which patrols Libya’s coast. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which provided the legal basis for international intervention in Libya, authorizes countries to "take all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack." Protecting rebel weapons and soldiers destined for Misrata, however, would represent a significant expansion of that mandate.

A Canadian helicopter participating in the NATO force halted a rebel ship for half an hour outside Misrata last week before deciding to let it through. Hodaifa said that it was allowed to continue on its mission after Mustafa Abdul Jalil, head of the Transitional National Council (TNC), the Libyan rebels’ self-appointed leadership body, contacted NATO to request that it be allowed to continue on its journey.

Grad rockets, along with T-72 and T-92 tanks, are currently the most lethal weapons used by Qaddafi’s military against the rebels. NATO reported that Qaddafi’s forces are embedding these heavy weapons in residential neighborhoods in Misrata, making it difficult for them to be destroyed through airstrikes without civilian casualties.

Hodaifa supported the introduction of foreign military ground forces in Misrata in order to end what he described as an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in the city. "When Qaddafi targets the port [with Grad missiles] and he stops any humanitarian aid from coming into Misrata, this is the biggest thing that’s impeding the implementation of [Resolution] 1973," he said. "NATO’s first task should be securing an entrance point into Misrata."

Hodaifa made the case that it was essentially impossible to fulfill the requirements of the U.N. Security Council resolution while leaving Qaddafi in power. Would the TNC support NATO airstrikes on Qaddafi’s Tripoli stronghold of Bab Azizia, aimed at killing the Libyan leader?

"That’s our target," he replied. "And we welcome anybody today to help us do that."

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