NATO says destroys 17 Libyan tanks at Misrata, Brega

By Justyna Pawlak

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – NATO forces destroyed 17 tanks belonging to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s forces on Friday and early Saturday as the alliance stepped up the pace of its operations in the country, NATO officials said.

One NATO official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said NATO aircraft hit 15 tanks near the western city of Misrata, where Gaddafi’s forces are attacking rebels, and two south of Brega in the east of the country.

“Friday’s operations could prove to have had the highest tempo (since NATO took command of military operations in Libya),” the official said.

NATO’s commander of Libyan operations said the alliance, which took command of air strikes against Gaddafi on March 31, had destroyed “a significant percentage” of his armored forces in the past 24 hours as well as ammunition stockpiles east of the capital, Tripoli.

Canadian Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard also accused Gaddafi’s forces of using civilians as human shields to deter NATO forces from attacking them, adding to similar charges made by other Western commanders.

“We have observed horrific examples of regime forces deliberately placing their weapons systems close to civilians, their homes and even their places of worship,” Bouchard said in a statement on Saturday.

“Troops have also been observed hiding behind women and children. This type of behavior violates the principles of international law and will not be tolerated.”

NATO has faced accusations by rebels over the last week that it was not doing enough to tip the balance of power in their favor. But rebel leaders said on Saturday they had now been buoyed by NATO air power.

“In one particular strike near Misrata, our pilots observed regime forces loading armored vehicles onto equipment transporters to be taken forward into population centers,” Bouchard said.

“NATO pilots … first engaged a tank concealed along a nearby hedge line. This strike destroyed the tank and forced the nearby troops to flee, allowing the second strike to destroy other vehicles with minimal loss of life,” he said.

A NATO official also said the alliance had intercepted a MIG 23 aircraft near Benghazi on Saturday, flown by a rebel pilot, and advised him to land.

“We don’t know the identity of the pilot but given that he took off from Benghazi, we would presume it was an opposition pilot,” he said.

He said it was the first time NATO forces had intercepted a fighter aircraft since they began enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya, mandated by the United Nations.

NATO says destroys 17 Libyan tanks at Misrata, Brega