By ERIC SCHMITT
WASHINGTON — The commander of NATO’s air campaign in Libya has said that hundreds of organized fighters loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi pose a “resilient and fierce” threat in the two remaining pro-Qaddafi strongholds, and are exploiting the urban settings to complicate the alliance’s mission to protect civilians.
General Jodice said a mix of African mercenaries and Qaddafi loyalist troops have successfully sustained command-and-control and supply lines in staunch defense of the cities, despite a NATO air campaign that is now in its seventh month and a multipronged ground assault in Surt by anti-Qaddafi fighters.
“It’s really been quite interesting how resilient and fierce they’ve been,” General Jodice said in a telephone interview on Sunday from his command center just north of Bologna, Italy. We’re all surprised by the tenacity of the pro-Qaddafi forces. At this point, they might not see a way out.”
General Jodice’s comments, coming on Sunday as former rebel fighters battled their way into the heart of Surt and then were driven back by sniper and mortar fire, tempered the boasts of anti-Qaddafi forces that Surt would soon be theirs and once again underscored the limitations that have confronted NATO throughout the air campaign.
NATO’s mandate to protect civilians who are threatened or have come under attack is complicated by the alliance’s caution in striking targets — like buildings where snipers are hiding — that could result in the death or injury of civilians.
... Strike missions have dropped to about two dozen a day from 50 missions daily, and allied warplanes rarely drop their precision-guided bombs these days, allied officials say. Take the three-day period from last Friday through Sunday, for example.
On Friday, one vehicle staging area was attacked and destroyed in Surt, according to a NATO statement. On Saturday, there were no strikes. And on Sunday, three armed vehicles in Bani Walid were hit.
The United States is still flying an array of surveillance planes and remotely piloted Predator drones, particularly near Surt. But General Jodice said there was no coordination or intelligence-sharing between NATO and the anti-Qaddafi fighters, though British and French special forces troops, among other advisers on the ground in Libya, have for months helped train the former rebels and provided them with intelligence.
The advances by the anti-Qaddafi forces on Sunday came after three days of intense fighting that included some of the Libyan conflict’s bloodiest battles to date. The former rebels seized a convention center and a hospital in Surt, both of which General Jodice said had been used as sniper nests and loyalist command posts.
A convention center?
“The situation is extremely dynamic and NATO continues to monitor and act, when required, to protect civilians from attack or threat of attack.”