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Another Libyan official leaves Gadhafi's regime to defect

By DIAA HADID and BOUAZZA BEN BOUAZZA

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, May 17 2011 9:13 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this Wednesday, March 9, 2011 file photo, Shukri Ghanem, head of the state-run National Oil Corporation, addresses a news conference in Tripoli, Libya. Libya's oil minister defected and fled to Tunisia, a Tunisian security official said Tuesday May 17, 2011, one of the highest profile figures to abandon Moammar Gadhafi's government. Shukri Ghanem, the head of the National Oil Co. and Libya's oil minister, crossed into Tunisia by road on Monday and defected, the Tunisian official said. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File)

Associated Press

TRIPOLI, Libya — Another high-ranking Libyan official has defected and fled the country amid a widening NATO campaign of bombings as well as leafletting and other psychological warfare to persuade Moammar Gadhafi's troops to stop fighting.

Shukri Ghanem, the Libyan oil minister and head of the National Oil Co., crossed into neighboring Tunisia by road on Monday, according to a Tunisian security official and Abdel Moneim al-Houni, a former Libyan Arab League representative who was among the first wave of Libyan diplomats to defect.

The defections suggest Gadhafi's political structure is fraying, but it's unclear whether there is enough internal strife to seriously undermine his ability to fight rebel forces as NATO airstrikes pound Libyan military targets. Gadhafi appears to retain the backing of his core of military commanders.

Still, support for Gadhafi seems to be waning in the capital, Tripoli. Pro-regime demonstrations are sparsely attended, even when heavily advertised in advance.

And rebel forces have reported some gains in recent days. In Misrata, the main battleground in western Libya, opposition fighters claim they have driven back government troops from key access points and tried to push pro-Gadhafi gunners out of rocket range for the city.

NATO said Tuesday it would step up psychological warfare operations to try to persuade troops loyal to Gadhafi to abandon the fight.

Wing Cmdr. Mike Bracken, speaking in Naples, Italy, said NATO planes have been dropping leaflets and broadcasting messages to Libyan forces urging them "to return to their barracks and homes."

Bracken said the messages also have advised pro-regime troops "to move away from any military equipment" that could be targeted by NATO's strike aircraft.

He did not provide further details on the psychological operations. But the U.S. has been using a specially modified Air Force C-130 transport to broadcast messages to Libyan forces in AM, FM, high-frequency radio, TV and military communications bands.

NATO is operating under a U.N. Security Council mandate to maintain a no-fly zone and to take other actions to protect civilians from attack by Gadhafi's forces. In recent days, NATO attacks have concentrated on military and logistics hubs in Tripoli.

On Monday night, British aircraft bombed the intelligence agency building in the capital as well as a training base for bodyguards protecting members of Gadhafi's regime, according to Britain's Ministry of Defense.

Maj. Gen. John Lorimer said the targets were "at the heart of the apparatus used by the regime to brutalize the civilian population."

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