TRIPOLI/BRUSSELS: NATO’s bombing campaign in Libya has crippled the government’s ability to attack rebels fighting to topple Moammar Gadhafi and managed to force him into hiding, the alliance said Friday.
Ambassadors of the 28 NATO states who met this week are confident the mission is making “steady and tangible progress” and, while fighting continues, the campaign has relieved pressure on rebel-held towns, NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero told a briefing.
Rebels and government forces fought a fresh battle in an area called Ryna around 10 kilometers east of Zintan, a town in the contested Western Mountains region.
A Reuters reporter in the center of Zintan heard artillery rounds and anti-aircraft gunfire. A rebel spokesman in the town, Juma Ibrahim, said it appeared pro-government forces were trying to advance and were firing tank rounds and heavy guns.
U.S. President Barack Obama Thursday said Gadhafi’s downfall was “inevitable” and a precondition for the start of a democratic transition.
The government dismissed Obama’s speech, which was prompted by the Arab Spring uprisings.
Tripoli reiterated a cease-fire offer, saying government forces were ready to withdraw forces if the rebels surrender.
In a marked escalation of the campaign, NATO said Friday it sank eight Libyan warships and intercepted a fuel tanker it believed was heading for the military.
“The destruction last night of the facility and a significant stockpile of the boats will reduce the regime’s ability to sustain such tactics,” Britain’s Major-General John Lorimer said.
NATO also intercepted the oil tanker Jupiter Friday, saying it believed the fuel was intended for military purposes.
Libyan officials took journalists late Thursday to Tripoli’s port, where a small ship spewed smoke and flames.
Missiles hit six boats. Five were coastguard vessels and one was a larger navy vessel but all had been undergoing repairs since before fighting started, said port general manager Mohammad Ahmad Rashed.
Journalists were taken to revisit the site Friday. One 10-meter vessel bobbed next to a jetty but it appeared to be sinking. Two 50 meter vessels lay next to it. Both had mounted guns and one had a missile platform.
The larger ships were extensively damaged with one partially submerged.
By targeting shipping, NATO is effectively enforcing a blockade against civilians, Rashed said. “We had been told if those ships moved they would be destroyed so they were docked here,” said Amran al-Ferjani, chief of the Libyan coastguard.
Libyan state television Thursday showed footage of Gadhafi meeting a Libyan politician in Tripoli. The footage zoomed in on a TV in the room that showed Thursday’s date.
Gadhafi was last seen on state TV May 11. NATO bombed his compound the next day, and a day later the TV broadcast an audio clip in which he taunted NATO and said it could not kill him.
But a series of apparent high-level defections suggest Gadhafi is struggling to hold his inner circle together. His top oil official, Shokri Ghanem, has left and not been heard from for days although his name was on a list for a flight to Vienna.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told CBS television Friday that pressure on Gadhafi’s government was such that his wife and daughter fled across the border into Tunisia in the last two days and Ghanem has defected.
Tripoli says Ghanem is on an official visit to Europe but Tunisian and rebel sources say he has defected.
Meanwhile, an international aid group said Friday that 3,800 Chadians who fled fighting in Libya were stranded in a remote desert town in northern Chad.
The International Organization for Migration in Geneva said the migrants have little food or water, and dozens are sick or injured.