Another Gadhafi regime official defects

By Diaa Hadid

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, May 18 2011 4:22 a.m. MDT

In this photo taken on a government organized tour, a poster of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is seen in a damaged official building following an airstrike in Tripoli, Libya, early Tuesday, May 17, 2011.

Darko Bandic, 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.

On Wednesday, Libyan rebels said Gadhafi's forces have been shelling several cities in the western mountains in an attempt to tighten their grip on the area.

BelJassem, a citizen-turned-fighter from a village near Yafrin, said Gadhafi forces were using Grad missiles and rocket launchers in their nearly monthlong siege, leaving residents trapped and cut off from food and medical supplies.

"We dig trenches and hide in there at night," says BelJassem, who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals. Yafrin, which is 75 miles (120 kilometers) southwest of Tripoli, is one of the biggest cities in the Nafusa mountain range, home to the ethnic Berber minority.

Medghamas Abu-Zakhar, a rebel based in Yafrin, said Gadhafi forces were shelling villages toward the top of the Nafusa range in an attempt to capture the high ground.

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."

One of the buildings hit was used by the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for internal security. Another building belonging to an anti-corruption commission was also bombed. Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim suggested that the ministry was targeted because it contained files on corruption cases against senior members of the Benghazi-based rebel leadership.

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