Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi are no longer able to launch a credible military offensive, NATO’s top Libya commander said, as rebels look to gain momentum in overthrowing the strongman.
“The Gaddafi regime’s forces continue to be weakened, both in strength and their will to fight,” Canada’s Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard said, speaking from his Italy headquarters, as rebel troops made new advances.
“They are no longer able to launch a credible offensive,” he added.
NATO was authorised in March by UN Security Council resolution 1973 to defend Libya’s civilian population from attacks by Colonel Gaddafi’s regime, which faces a popular revolt after 42 years in power.
As NATO-led airstrikes have helped the rebels on the ground without managing to decisively turn the tide in the conflict, Bouchard said Gaddafi has brought in fighters from other African countries to bolster his embattled forces.
“We’re seeing lots of mercenaries, ruthless mercenaries that come from other countries and are enlisted by Gaddafi’s forces to inflict extreme violence on men, women and children,” Bouchard said.
“The recruiting of these mercenaries continues,” he said.
“There is a growing demand for their services, which lends credibility to the fact that Gaddafi’s forces are being affected by NATO’s actions as well as defections of generals, policemen and even politicians.”
Meanwhile, Libyan rebels said they captured a key oil terminal Thursday that has repeatedly changed hands in the 6-month-old civil war.
Rebel spokesman Mohammed al-Brinjal said he was with the fighters in Brega when they gained control of the strategic port city, 125 miles (200 kilometres) southwest of the de-facto rebel capital of Benghazi, after three weeks of intense fighting.
“Brega is liberated,” al-Brinjal said.
Al-Brinjal, who spoke over the telephone from nearby Ajdabiya, didn’t provide any details or a casualty toll. His claim could not be immediately verified. Officials in the Libyan capital Tripoli made no comment on the rebel claim.
Brega fell under rebel control briefly in March, but was recaptured by Gaddafi’s forces shortly afterward.
The fighting around the city has gone back and forth since then, with the rebels not managing to keep their ground.
Brega’s capture would be an important boost for the rebels because whoever controls the strategic oil terminal, which is also Libya’s second-largest hydrocarbon complex, is in charge of the country’s main oil fields.
Another rebel spokesman, Mohammed al-Zawawi, said earlier Thursday that two rebels died in the day’s fighting in Brega, while 16 others were wounded.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed deep concern Thursday at reports of “the unacceptably large number of civilian casualties” and called on all parties to exercise extreme caution in their actions, in order to minimise any further loss of civilian life,” the UN spokesman’s office said in a statement.
Ban reiterated “his strongly held belief that there can be no military solution to the Libyan crisis” and called for a ceasefire linked to a political process that meets the aspirations of the Libyan people as “the only viable means to achieving peace and security in Libya.”