- Associated Press - Thursday, July 7, 2011

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — NATO denied a Libyan government charge Thursday that the alliance is intentionally using its airstrikes to assist rebel advances, saying it is sticking to its mandate to protect civilians.

Wing Cmdr. Mike Bracken, an alliance spokesman in Naples, Italy, said NATO is “not involved in the ground battles,” although he acknowledged the alliance is tracking the fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi.

Libya’s Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim accused NATO earlier Thursday of intensifying its bombing campaign and backing foreign mercenaries to lay the groundwork for an advance by rebels trying to topple Gadhafi’s regime.

In an early morning interview with The Associated Press, Kaim said increased bombings in recent days represent the “final phase” of NATO’s air campaign. But he said the push will fail and that civilians will be the ones to pay the price.


Kaim said NATO targeted police checkpoints in the Nafusa mountains southwest of Tripoli ahead of a rebel advance toward the village of Qawalish, which rebel fighters said they seized Wednesday.

A fuel depot in the key eastern oil town of Brega was also destroyed, Kaim said. NATO said it hit equipment used to refuel government military vehicles.

The intensified barrage of airstrikes, particularly in the west of the country, is focused on targeting civilian infrastructure and police checkpoints, he said.

He also alleged that NATO was increasing efforts to provide weapons to rebel fighters.

“The aim of these attacks is to help the rebels to advance. But I assure you, it will be another failure for them,” he said.

Kaim also claimed Libyan forces have evidence that Colombian mercenaries funded by the West and its Arab allies have joined the rebel fighters trying to advance toward the capital Tripoli from the western rebel-held city of Misrata.

Some of the Colombian fighters were killed in clashes near Misrata on Wednesday, he said. While Kaim did not provide evidence to substantiate the allegation, he said it would soon be shown to journalists based in Tripoli.

NATO cast doubt on the charge that mercenaries were involved.

“We’ve not seen anything to indicate this allegation might be true,” said NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu. “But what we have seen are repeated consistent and credible reports that Gadhafi’s forces have been using mercenaries, not just now or in recent months but for years and decades.”

NATO began airstrikes against Libya in March. The coalition and its Arab allies are operating under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians.

Some countries in the coalition have interpreted that mandate broadly, with France acknowledging it has provided weapons to rebels operating in the mountains and other countries providing non-lethal aid to rebel-held areas.

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