TRIPOLI, Libya — Britain is sending up to 20 military advisers to help Libya’s ragtag rebel force break a military stalemate with Moammar Gadhafi’s army, even as NATO acknowledges that airstrikes alone cannot stop the daily shelling of the besieged opposition-held city of Misrata.
Gadhafi’s troops have been pounding Misrata indiscriminately with mortars and rockets, a NATO general said Tuesday, and residents reported more explosions and firefights in Libya’s third-largest city.
Hospitals are overflowing and 120 patients need to be evacuated from the city that has been under siege for nearly two months, the World Health Organization said.
The plight of Misrata’s civilians and the battlefield deadlock are raising new questions about the international community’s strategy in Libya.
The leaders of the U.S., Britain and France have said Gadhafi must go, but seem unwilling to commit to a more forceful military campaign. NATO’s mandate is restricted to protecting civilians.
Adm. Giampaolo Di Paola, chairman of NATO’s military committee, said that even though the military alliance’s operations have done “quite significant damage” to the Libyan regime’s heavy weaponry, what Gadhafi has left is “still considerable.”
Asked if more airpower is needed, Di Paola said any “significantly additional” allied contribution would be welcome.
The rebels seized control of most of eastern Libya shortly after the uprising began in February, while Gadhafi is entrenched in the west, but the front line hasn’t changed dramatically since then.
“I am very optimistic. We will win,” Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, said on state television, referring to the fighting.
“The balance changes every day in our favour,” he said in a joking but defiant manner. Frustration over the stalemate has spurred talk in the West of new tactics, including dispatching military personnel to Libya.
Britain took the lead Tuesday, saying it is sending up to 20 senior soldiers who will help organize the rebels, many of whom have had little military training or battle experience.
However, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain would not arm the opposition or assist in military operations.
Britain has already sent non-lethal support, including 1,000 sets of body armour and 100 satellite phones.
“As the scale of the humanitarian crisis has grown, so has the urgency of increasing our efforts to defend civilians against the attack from Gadhafi forces,” Hague said.
Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said Britain’s attempt to help the rebels is futile.
“This is not in the interest of the U.K.,” Kaim told The Associated Press. “This is an impossible mission. To organize who? They (the rebels) are different groups. There is no leader. They are not well-organized, and I am sure it will be a failure.”
Allies would also consider supplying Libya’s rebels with technical equipment such as radars or systems to intercept and block telecommunications, said Italian Foreign Minster Franco Frattini. He said this would be discussed at a meeting next month of the international contact group on Libya.
“We have condemned the regime’s violence, the presence of snipers on the rooftops of Tripoli’s houses and in the besieged cities,” Frattini said. “We cannot say this isn’t our problem.”
However, both Italy and France remain opposed to sending ground troops. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Tuesday he is “totally hostile” to the idea.
Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, a rebel leader touring Europe in search of more logistical support, said the Libyan opposition is not looking to other nations to remove Gadhafi.
“We are not looking or inviting anybody to kill him, and we don’t have such a possibility, but we hope he and his regime can leave Libya as soon as possible,” Abdul-Jalil said in Italy.
The European Union, meanwhile, said it is ready, in principle, to provide armed escorts to secure U.N. aid convoys in Libya, but U.N. officials said they don’t need such guards for the time being. The proposal drew a warning from Kaim that sending armed escorts would be tantamount to a military operation.
The U.N. Security Council resolution bans the use of foreign troops in Libya. Russia — a veto-wielding member of the Council — already has complained that the NATO action in bombing Libya’s military has overstepped its mandate, and therefore is unlikely to approve any further extension of the alliance’s operations.
In Misrata, an opposition bridgehead in western Libya, rebels have held out despite daily rocket and artillery barrages, in part because they continue to get supplies by sea. The rebels hold positions near the port, while Gadhafi’s forces control parts of Tripoli Street, a downtown thoroughfare.
NATO Brig. Gen. Mark van Uhm said his forces have destroyed more than 40 tanks and several armoured personnel carriers in Misrata. However, there’s always concern of inadvertently harming civilians in such airstrikes, he said.
“There is a limit to what can be achieved by airpower to stop fighting in a city,” said van Uhm.
Fighting has been intense for the past 10 days and Gadhafi’s forces have shelled Misrata indiscriminately, he said. “The situation on the ground is fluid there, with ground being won and lost by both sides,” van Uhm said at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Human rights activists have said at least 267 people have been killed in Misrata, with the final toll likely higher, and many more people wounded.
Hospitals in Misrata have difficulties conducting surgeries because “the capacity is overstretched and 120 patients need evacuation,” said WHO spokesman Tariq Jasarevic
Supplies have so far reached Misrata by sea, including three ships that delivered a total of some 1,500 tons of supplies such as medicine and food. Two of the ships have evacuated nearly 2,000 people from Misrata, including migrant workers and Libyans, among them wounded people.
UNICEF is sending a ship Wednesday with supplies for 15,000 to 25,000 people, including first aid kits, drinking water and water purification tablets. Misrata has about 300,000 people.
Over the weekend, the U.N. humanitarian chief said she was assured by Libyan authorities that the U.N. would be permitted to visit Misrata and other towns to assess the humanitarian need.
The World Food Program, a U.N. agency, said it has signed an agreement with the Libyan Red Crescent to deliver aid in western Libya. “We received an indication that the government did not have any objection,” said agency spokeswoman Emilia Casella.
WFP trucks are already bringing food to feed 50,000 people for a month, Casella said. The food will be distributed by the Libyan Red Crescent in Tripoli, Zintan, Yefrin, Nalut, Mizda, Al Reiba and Zawiya.