MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) - A split opened within the NATO-led air campaign against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on Wednesday when France and Britain rejected an Italian call for a halt to military action to allow aid access.
China also signalled a shift in its stance on the conflict, describing as a “dialogue partner” the rebels who, four months into the uprising, are making only slow gains in their effort to reach the capital Tripoli and topple Gaddafi.
Rebels said NATO air strikes hit government weapons depots south of the rebel-held western mountain town of Zintan, while an unverified Libyan TV report said “dozens” of people were killed in a separate NATO attack on the town of Zlitan.
NATO’s first acknowledgment this weekend that it may have caused civilian casualties risks hurting support for a mission that secured a U.N. mandate despite deep misgivings from states in the Arab world, Europe and beyond.
“The need to look for a ceasefire has become more pressing,” Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told parliament.
“As well as the ceasefire, which is the first stage towards a political negotiation, a humanitarian stop to military action is fundamental to allow immediate humanitarian aid.”
An Italian Foreign Ministry spokesman later clarified that Rome was not making a specific proposal and was interested in any ideas to reduce civilian casualties. But his comments got short shrift from NATO allies.
“We have to intensify the pressure on Gaddafi. Any pause in operations would risk allowing him to gain time and reorganise himself,” said French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero.
Britain, which along with France was one of the first countries to put their weight behind the rebellion, agreed.
“Our position is that this is in Gaddafi’s hands. He has called several ceasefires and none of them have resulted in ceasefires,” Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman said.
“The right approach at the present time is to increase the pressure on Gaddafi.”
NATO air strikes hit government weapons depots south of the rebel-held western mountain town of Zintan on Wednesday evening, said rebel spokesman Juma Ibrahim.
A series of large explosions followed the air strike, he said. Live footage from Zintan broadcast on Al Jazeera TV showed huge balls of fire lighting up the pitch-dark horizon.
Separately, four rebels were killed and at least 12 wounded in artillery fire on the Dafniya front near the coastal city of Misrata, a medical worker at the field hospital there said.
Three of them were killed as they ate their lunch in a group, underlining concerns about the amateurishness of a force on which Gaddafi’s opponents are counting for regime change.
Forces loyal to Gaddafi shelled Nalut near the border with Tunisia on Wednesday, firing more than 20 Grad rockets into the rebel-held town, a rebel spokesman called Salem said by phone.
Several houses were damaged in the attack, he said.
The lack of any sustained rebel advance has led some analysts to believe NATO is banking on an uprising in Tripoli to remove Gaddafi, and is choosing its bombing targets accordingly.
A senior official of the African Union, many of whose member states are uncomfortable with the sight of NATO bombs hitting the continent, said NATO would ultimately have to rally to its policy of promoting a ceasefire as a first step to a settlement.
“(The bombing campaign) was something which they thought would take 15 days,” Jean Ping, chairman of the AU Commission, told Reuters in Addis Ababa.
“The stalemate is already there. There is no other way.”
Time is now a crucial factor for both sides in the conflict, with unity in the NATO-led coalition likely to come under more strain and Gaddafi having to deal with the economic impact of international sanctions.
In a sign of the increasing impact of the crisis on daily life, Libyan state media issued instructions that ordinary people should follow “to deal with the fuel shortage”.
They called on people to use public transport instead of cars, avoid using air conditioning when driving and stick to 90-100 kph (55-63 mph) as the ideal speed. They also asked Libyans to be patient when queueing at petrol stations.
Exports of oil have ceased, depriving Gaddafi’s government of the funds it used during peacetime to provide the population with heavily subsidised food and fuel. Petrol queues in Gaddafi -held areas now stretch for miles.
The rebel National Transitional Council got a further boost on Wednesday when China, the only veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council not to have urged Gaddafi to stand down, hosted its diplomatic chief for talks in Beijing.
“China sees you as an important dialogue partner,” Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told Mahmoud Jibril, according to comments published on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website (www.mfa.gov.cn).
The statement, however, stopped short of aligning China with the 19 countries which have recognised the Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people.
Action on the ground was inconclusive. At least three explosions were heard in Tripoli in the morning and again in the afternoon but it was not clear what had caused them.
Rebels have been trying to advance west toward the town of Zlitan, where Gaddafi’s soldiers are imposing a tight siege. Libyan television said on Wednesday that “dozens” of people were killed there after NATO ships shelled the town.
The report could not be independently verified because foreign reporters have been prevented from entering Zlitan. NATO normally comments on its Libya operations the following day.
Additional reporting by Roberto Landucci in Rome, John Irish in Paris, Keith Weir in London, Nick Carey in Tripoli, Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Joseph Nasr in Berlin and Ali Abdelatti in Cairo; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Alistair Lyon