WRAPUP 7-Libya rebels retake land, NATO cites air strike woes

* Rebels regain desert land in approach to oil port Brega

* NATO struggles to distinguish Gaddafi units from civilians

* France sees risk of NATO getting “bogged down”

* NATO says priority protecting besieged people of Misrata

* Rebels deny links with al Qaeda

(Adds battlefield developments, rebel comment on Qaeda)

By Alexander Dziadosz

AL-ARBAEEN, Libya, April 6 (Reuters) – Libyan rebels regained
ground in a new advance on an oil port on Wednesday but accused
NATO of inaction hindering their quest to oust Muammar Gaddafi.

NATO said Gaddafi was making it increasingly difficult for
its pilots to carry out air strikes by ensconcing his forces in
heavily populated areas and using civilians as human shields.

In their eastern heartland, ill-trained insurgents thrust
back westwards towards the contested oil port of Brega,
recovering mostly desert terrain lost in a pell-mell retreat
from Gaddafi’s superior firepower the day before.

Rebels returning to the tiny outpost of al-Arbaeen, midway
between Brega and their frontline town of Ajdabiyah, spoke of
rocket duels close to Brega’s port as both sides strived to end
a ragged stalemate in the oil-producing state’s civil war.

There was little doubt the rebels had made ground after
falling back at least 40 km (25 miles) on Tuesday but it was
impossible to verify accounts that they were closing in on Brega
once again.

There were reports of mortar and rocket battles near the
town on Libya’s desolate Mediterranean highway 80 km (50 miles)
west of Ajdabiyah. Fighting had resumed at daybreak after
government forces were resupplied with ammunition and swung east
from Brega, rebel officer Mohamed el-Masrafy told Reuters.

“God willing, we are going to try to enter Brega today,”
said rebel Idriss Abdel Karim, but he and various comrades
complained of a lack of support from NATO bombers.

“(Government forces) are scared of NATO air strikes but NATO
doesn’t bomb anything in the first place,” he said.

“There have been no air strikes. We hear the sound, but they
don’t bomb anything,” said Hossam Ahmed, another rebel.

“What is NATO waiting for? We have cities that are being
destroyed. Ras Lanuf, Bin Jawad, Brega, and Gaddafi is
destroying Misrata completely,” added Said Emburak, an Ajdabiyah
resident.

NATO’s air strikes are targeting Gaddafi’s military
infrastructure but only to protect civilians, not to provide
close air support for rebels, much to their dismay, as part of a
no-fly zone mandated by the U.N. Security Council.

Still, their claims of abandonment since NATO took over the
mission from a U.S.-British-French coalition, whose initial
onslaught on Gaddafi’s forced had tilted the war the rebels’
way, put the Western military alliance on the defensive.

Spokeswoman Carmen Romero maintained that “the pace of our
operations continues unabated. The ambition and the position of
our strikes has not changed”.

HUMAN SHIELDS

She said that relieving the siege of Misrata, a rebel
enclave in the west, remained the priority but conceded that
Gaddafi’s army was proving a resourceful, elusive target.

“The situation on the ground is constantly evolving.
Gaddafi’s forces are changing tactics, using civilian vehicles,
hiding tanks in cities such as Misrata and using human shields
to hide behind,” Romero told reporters in Brussels.

She reiterated NATO’s position that air power had destroyed
30 percent of Gaddafi’s military capacity thus far.

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More on Middle East unrest: [nTOPMEAST] [nLDE71O2CH]

Libya Graphics http://link.reuters.com/neg68r

Interactive graphic http://link.reuters.com/puk87r

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Western air power has fashioned a rough military balance in
Libya, preventing Gaddafi troops from overrunning the motley
rebel force dominating the east — but not forceful enough for
the insurgents to advance solidly hundreds of kilometres along
the Mediterranean coast to the capital Tripoli in the west.

Masrafy told Reuters that the front line was about 20 km (12
miles) east of Brega, the focus of a weeklong to-and-fro battle.
A sustained government assault on Tuesday drove rebels about
halfway back to Ajdabiyah, gateway to their Benghazi powerbase.

The fighting across the open desert highway has been very
fluid with territory won and lost very quickly.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said NATO operations
were at risk of getting “bogged down” because Gaddafi’s forces
were making it harder for alliance pilots to distinguish them
from civilians by hunkering down in populated areas.

He told France Info radio that he would address the issue
shortly with the head of NATO, adding that Misrata’s ordeal
“cannot go on” but that “the situation is unclear”.

Admiral Edouard Guillaud, France’s armed forces chief, told
Europe 1 radio: “I would like things to go faster but …
protecting civilians means not firing anywhere near them. That
is precisely the difficulty.”

Misrata, under daily shelling, tank and sniper fire, is the
sole significant population centre in western Libya — about 200
km (120 miles) east of Tripoli — where a two-month-old popular
revolt against Gaddafi has not been stamped out.

“TERRORISING” PEOPLE OF MISRATA

Rebels holed up in Misrata denied links with al Qaeda on
Wednesday and accused NATO of indecision and failing to protect
civilians after what they called a government artillery barrage
that began overnight and lasted well into Wednesday.

“I ask the international community, which is still confused
and reluctant to bomb his (Gaddafi) forces properly: isn’t he
the main threat to civilians?” said Gemal, a rebel spokesman.

“This shelling aims at terrorising the people. Our children
do not go to schools … Stress and nervous breakdowns are
increasing among the people,” he said.

Neighbouring Algeria said on Wednesday AQIM — al Qaeda’s
North African wing — was noticeably ramping up its presence in
Libya and that a prolonged conflict across its desert frontier
risked destabilising the Sahel region further. [ID:nLDE73425V]

Asked about reports of an al Qaeda presence, Gemal said:
“This is bizarre. Gaddafi was the first one to use this claim
and (now) it seems the world has picked it up.”

The rebels say they are fighting for an end to decades of
oppression under one of the world’s longest serving leaders and
have no Islamist militant agenda.

The inconclusive battlefield situation, defections from
Gaddafi’s coterie and the plight of civilians ensnared in
fighting or running out of food and fuel has spurred a flurry of
diplomacy in pursuit of a peaceful solution.

But such efforts have made little headway, with the rebels
adamant that Gaddafi step down while the government, aware of
the limitations of Western intervention, has offered concessions
hinting at democratisation but insists he stay in power.

War in the vast North African state ignited in February when
Gaddafi tried to crush pro-democracy rallies against his 41-year
rule inspired by uprisings that have toppled or endangered other
autocrats across the Arab world.
(Additional reporting by Brian Love and Nick Vinocur in Paris,
Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Simon
Cameron-Moore in Ankara, Angus Macswan in Benghazi; writing by
Mark Heinrich; editing by Giles Elgood)

WRAPUP 7-Libya rebels retake land, NATO cites air strike woes