Tripoli under attack, Gates warning on NATO
Explosions on the outskirts of Tripoli on Friday sent up black plumes of smoke, as Washington warned that NATO's air war on Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi's forces could be in peril.
The warning from US Defence Secretary Robert Gates over the military shortcomings of the Western military alliance came a day after Libya's rebels won a cash boost and crucial recognition from key powers.
Two loud blasts were heard in the centre of the Libyan capital at around 3 pm (1300 GMT), coming from the eastern suburbs of Tajura and Ain Zara, said an AFP correspondent who contacted local residents.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's special envoy, Mikhail Margelov, meanwhile, said he was preparing to visit Tripoli to find a solution to the conflict after meeting the opposition in their Benghazi stronghold.
The surge of support for the rebels battling to oust Kadhafi came at a meeting on Thursday in Abu Dhabi of the International Contact Group on Libya, during which key powers agreed to unlock a billion dollars for their coffers.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Rome would provide the rebel National Transitional Council with loans and fuel products worth 300 to 400 million euros ($438 million to $584 million).
And his French counterpart, Alain Juppe, said Paris would release 290 million euros ($420.9 million) of frozen Libyan funds for the NTC.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who also attended the Abu Dhabi meeting, pledged another "$26.5 million to help all the victims of this conflict, including Libyan refugees."
Such money will probably be distributed through relief agencies.
A US State Department official told reporters "we have got commitments of something about $300 million that came out of today's meeting," including $180 million from Kuwait and $100 million from Qatar.
On the diplomatic front, the United States joined Australia and Spain in recognising the NTC as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, with pressure mounting on the veteran leader to step down.
"Time is on our side," Clinton said, adding that international military, economic and political pressure was mounting on Kadhafi to abandon his four decades in power at the helm of the north African nation.
Militarily, a fresh wave of NATO air strikes also hit Tripoli early on Friday, with three strong explosions shaking the city centre at around midnight. Other more distant blasts followed.
Tripoli has over the past two days been targeted by the most intense NATO air raids since the international military campaign was launched on March 19 under a UN mandate to protect Libyan civilians.
NATO, in a daily military update, said among the Tripoli targets attacked on Thursday were command and control facilities, an early warning radar and a surface-to-air missile launcher.
In Brussels, Gates warned that military shortcomings among NATO members could jeopardise the air war in Libya.
With half of the countries in the 28-member alliance not participating in the Libya campaign, Gates said it reflected a worrisome lack of military assets.
"Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they cannot. The military capabilities simply aren't there," Gates said in a speech.
However, Oslo, which has contributed six F-16 fighters, announced on Friday that it will first reduce its participation before withdrawing from air operations on August 1.
Gates said many allies lacked intelligence and surveillance aircraft and specialists, which meant the US military had to step in to ensure allied warplanes could identify and strike targets.
"Furthermore, the mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country -- yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference," he said.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told journalists Friday his country supported a three-month extension of the NATO air campaign in Libya, but its six F-16s would not fly bombing missions.
"The cabinet has reacted positively when informed of our intention to extend the mission by three months," Rutte said.
In Moscow, Margelov said he believed there remained "a window of opportunity to hold talks between conflicting sides."
"I am now involved in preparations for a Tripoli trip," he said after returning from a visit to Benghazi.
"We will be ready to offer some kind of contours of a 'roadmap' for settling the Libya conflict after my trip to Tripoli. The process of acknowledging positions and accumulating material is now continuing."
Margelov said he could not give a specific date for his next visit as Russia was waiting for NATO to arrange a transport corridor so the visit could go ahead in full security.
© 2011 AFP