- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 8, 2011

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Libyan government forces shelled the outskirts of the western city of Misrata from three sides Wednesday, killing 10 rebels in a show of defiance as NATO airstrikes shook the capital of Tripoli and the alliance’s top official said Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s fall is only a matter of time.

The fighting represented escalation in the more than 4-month-old uprising, which has spiraled into a civil war that has divided Libyan into zones controlled by Col. Gadhafi and others by rebels fighting to end his 42-year rule. NATO has been bombing Col. Gadhafi’s forces to enforce a U.N. resolution authorizing forces to protect civilians.

Dr. Khalid Abufalgha of Misrata’s central Hikma Hospital said government forces tried to enter the city from the east, south and the west, but rebel fighters kept them out. Col. Gadhafi’s forces then shelled the city from afar, killing 10 and injuring 24, he said.

All the dead were fighters manning rebel checkpoints outside the city, he said. Most were killed in the village of Tawargha, southeast of Misrata.

The daily death toll is the highest in Libya’s third-largest city since rebel fighters pushed government forces to the outskirts weeks ago. Misrata remains under siege, able to get food and other supplies only through its seaport. The government shelling remained on the outskirts.

Misrata is the only large rebel-held city in western Libya. The rebels also control a swath of eastern Libya around their de facto capital in Benghazi and other towns in the western Nafusa mountain range.

In Benghazi, rebel spokesman Jalal el-Gallal called on NATO to take out Col. Gadhafi’s long-range artillery to speed his ouster.

“We’ve always felt that relentless, continuous strikes would hasten the departure of (Col. Gadhafi) or at least the circle around him,” he said.

NATO airstrikes rumbled over the Libyan capital on Wednesday, at least four during the day after five before dawn.

It was not immediately clear what was targeted. However, NATO strikes appear to be repeatedly pounding the same set of targets: the sprawling Gadhafi compound in central Tripoli, a series of government buildings and, on the city’s outskirts, radar installations and military bases.

In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, “For Gadhafi, it is no longer a question of if he goes, but when he goes.”

But when Col. Gadhafi goes, Mr. Fogh Rasmussen said, it would be up to the United Nations, not NATO, to usher Libya peacefully toward democracy.

“We do not see a lead role for NATO in Libya once this crisis is over,” he said. “We see the United Nations playing a lead role in the post-Gadhafi, post-conflict scenario.”

U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also stressed that message during a visit to Cairo, noting the recent NATO decision to extend the Libyan mission for 90 days, into late September.

“I think it’s very clear that NATO is very committed to this mission and committed to providing the kind of protection for the Libyan people that it has when it took the mission on and to focusing on a way to see Gadhafi out the door,” he said.

He added that President Obama “has been very clear and remains very clear that this will not involve boots on the ground from the United States’ perspective.”

Alliance officials warned for days that they were increasing the scope and intensity of their air campaign to oust Col. Gadhafi after more than 40 years in power. NATO is backing the rebel insurgency, which has seized swaths of eastern Libya and pockets in the regime’s stronghold in the west since the conflict began in February, inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world.

British and French attack helicopters struck for the first time inside Libya over the weekend, and the alliance on Tuesday flew 66 “strike sorties,” its most intense barrage yet in the conflict.

Some 6,850 people, nearly all of them Libyans, have streamed across the border from Libya to Tunisia since Monday to flee the NATO raids as well as fighting between the rebels and government forces, according to the Tunisian Defense Ministry.

Royal Air Force Wing Cmdr. Mike Bracken at NATO’s Libya operations headquarters in Naples told the Associated Press there has been “increased tempo over recent days over Tripoli” as the alliance seeks to further weaken Col. Gadhafi’s military.

But he stressed that “Gadhafi as an individual has not been a target and won’t be a target.”

In Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital, Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez became the latest European official to visit and bolster the opposition forces.

Mr. Fogh Rasmussen has said he will use the two-day meeting of alliance defense ministers, which started Wednesday at NATO’s Brussels headquarters, to push for broader participation by allies. He wants more countries from the 28-nation alliance to share the costs and risks involved in the campaign.

A defiant Col. Gadhafi vowed Tuesday to fight to the death.

“We will not surrender: We only have one choice — to the end! Death, victory, it does not matter. We are not surrendering!” Col. Gadhafi said in an audio broadcast on state television.

Col. Gadhafi was last seen in a brief appearance on state television in late May. He has mostly been in hiding since NATO strikes in April targeted one of his homes. Libyan officials said one of his sons, Saif al-Arab, and three of his grandchildren were killed in that strike.

Mike Corder contributed from Brussels. Associated Press writers Hadeel Al-Shalchi in Benghazi, Libya, and Ben Hubbard in Cairo contributed reporting.