By Matt Robinson
|Rebel fighters sit at the frontline in Ajdabiyah June 22, 2011. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany|
MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) – Libyaâ€™s rebels gained on the diplomatic front Wednesday by securing Chinaâ€™s recognition as a â€œdialogue partner,â€ but suffered on the battlefield where Muammar Gaddafiâ€™s forces were able to shell their stronghold of Misrata.
Four months into the uprising, and three months since NATO war planes joined their fight to topple Gaddafi, the rebels are making only slow gains in their march on the capital Tripoli. But they have made steady progress winning support abroad and isolating Gaddafi on the international stage.
â€œChina sees you as an important dialogue partner,â€ Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told Mahmoud Jibril, diplomatic chief of the Benghazi-based rebel National Transitional Council, who visited Beijing. The comments were published in a statement on the Chinese Foreign Ministryâ€™s website (www.mfa.gov.cn).
â€œ(The Councilâ€™s) representation has been growing stronger daily since its establishment, and it has step-by-step become an important domestic political force,â€ Yang said, adding China was worried about the Libyan peopleâ€™s suffering.
The comments came hours after Gaddafiâ€™s forces landed rockets in the center of Misrata for the first time in several weeks. No one was reported hurt by that strike, but it undermined a relative sense of security among residents who believed that a siege on the city had been broken last month.
NATO and the rebels hope that Gaddafiâ€™s diplomatic and economic isolation will eventually bring his government down.
Exports of oil have ceased, depriving Gaddafiâ€™s government of the funds it used during peacetime to provide the population with heavily subsidized food and fuel. Petrol queues in Gaddafi -held areas now stretch for miles.
In a sign of the increasing impact of the crisis on daily life, Gaddafiâ€™s state media issued instructions ordinary people should follow â€œto deal with the fuel shortage.â€
They called on people to use public transport instead of cars, avoid using air conditioning when driving and stick to 90-100 kph as the ideal speed. They also asked Libyans to be patient when queuing at petrol stations.
At least three explosions were heard in Tripoli Wednesday but it was not clear where or what caused them.
Rebels Seek Recognition
Winning international recognition could eventually help the rebels secure access to frozen Libyan funds, and the right to spend money earned by exporting the countryâ€™s oil.
China is the only veto-wielding permanent member of the U.N. Security Council that has yet to call for Gaddafi to step down, after Russia joined Western countries last month in calling for him to leave power.
Beijing, never very close to Gaddafi, hosted Libyaâ€™s Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi this month. Courting the rebels has marked a policy adjustment for China, which generally avoids entangling itself in other nationsâ€™ domestic affairs.
At least eight European and Arab governments have said they recognize the rebel council as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people. Other countries have allowed the rebels to set up representative offices.
The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) — a Saudi-based grouping of 57 Muslim countries — said a delegation arrived Wednesday to mediate. It would meet the rebels in Benghazi and Gaddafi officials in Tripoli, a statement said.
Rebels drove loyalist forces out of the third-biggest city Misrata in mid-May and are using it as a base for an advance westwards on Tripoli. Gaddafi forcesâ€™ ability to hit it with shells early Wednesday is a setback in a city that had experienced relative calm after months of siege and fighting.
More rockets fell later in the day in the sparsely-populated El-Araidat neighborhood near the port. Residents said no one was hurt and a Reuters reporter saw only several dead sheep lying in a field after the attack.
â€œEveryone is worried. We donâ€™t know where to go anymore. Only when I die will I be safe,â€ said Mohammed Mabrouk, who lives near one of two houses hit by the first rocket rounds. Two more landed in open areas.
Fighting has been largely on Misrataâ€™s far western and eastern edges, where the rebel army is sustaining heavier casualties by the day from the better-equipped and better-trained government forces.
Rebels have been trying to advance west toward the town of Zlitan, where Gaddafiâ€™s soldiers are imposing a tight siege. Libyan television said Wednesday that â€œdozensâ€ of people were killed in Zlitan after NATO naval ships shelled the town.
The report could not be independently verified because foreign reporters have been prevented from entering Zlitan. NATO normally comments on its Libya operations the following day.
If the Libyan television report is confirmed, it could further complicate the mission of the NATO-led military alliance, whose credibility has been questioned after it admitted Sunday killing civilians in a Tripoli air strike.
Gaddafiâ€™s government says more than 700 civilians have died in NATO strikes. However, it has not shown evidence of such large numbers of civilian casualties, and NATO denies them.
A rebel spokesman called Mohammed told Reuters from Zlitan that NATO had been hitting government military targets in the town on an almost daily basis. He said Gaddafiâ€™s soldiers used artillery positions in Zlitan to fire salvoes toward Misrata.
â€œWe hear the sound of artillery fire every night,â€ he said.
Four rebel fighters were killed and 60 others were wounded in fighting with government forces Tuesday in Dafniya, which lies between Zlitan and Misrata. Eleven rebel fighters were killed there a day earlier.
Rebels are trying to inch toward Tripoli from Misrata, east of the capital, and from the Western Mountains region to its southwest. The going has been tough.
â€œGaddafiâ€™s forces have moved forward about a kilometer,â€ Dr Mohammed Grigda said at the field hospital in Dafniya just outside Misrata. It was impossible to verify the information but a Reuters reporter in Dafniya saw that rebel mortar positions had pulled back slightly.
In the Western Mountains, where the rebels made significant gains in recent weeks, NATO launched four air strikes Tuesday against government forces outside the town of Nalut near the border with Tunisia, a rebel spokesman there said. Gaddafiâ€™s soldiers fired 20 rockets into the town, but no one was hurt.
Gaddafi allies denounce the bombing campaign as a foreign attempt to force a change of government and seize the North African stateâ€™s oil. NATO states defend the operation as a U.N.-mandated mission to protect Libyan civilians.
(Additional reporting by Nick Carey in Tripoli, Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Souhail Karam in Rabat, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Joseph Nasr in Berlin and Ali Abdelatti in Cairo; Writing by Andrew Hammond and Joseph Nasr; Editing by Peter Graff)