Foreign advisers head for Libya as raids continue

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France and Italy joined Britain Wednesday in sending military advisers to insurgent-held eastern Libya, as more NATO air raids were reported and Tripoli warned that a foreign troop deployment would prolong the conflict.

Amid the news of deployment of advisers, Libyan official media reported that seven civilians were killed and 18 wounded in a NATO air raid that targeted the southwestern Tripoli suburb of Khellat Al-Ferjan late Wednesday.

An earlier report by the state Allibiya television said the Khellat Al-Ferjan area where three explosions could be heard was the "target of barbarian crusaders' raids that left martyrs and wounded among the residents and destroyed their homes."

In the besieged city of Misrata, two photojournalists were killed including Tim Hetherington, an Oscar-nominated British film director and war photographer.

Vanity Fair, for which Hetherington was working, confirmed the death of the 41-year-old from Liverpool, the second journalist killed covering Libya's two-month-old conflict.

US national Chris Hondros of photo agency Getty later died from injuries he suffered from mortar fire that left two other journalists wounded.

The three European nations committing handfuls of troops to east Libya stressed they were being sent merely to advise the rebels on technical, logistical and organisational matters and not to fight.

In Paris, France's foreign ministry spokeswoman said: "France has placed a small number of liaison officers alongside our special envoy to Benghazi who are carrying out a liaison mission with the TNC.

"The precise objective is to give the TNC essentially technical, logistical and organisational advice to reinforce the protection of civilians and to improve the distribution of humanitarian and medical aid," she said.

She was referring to the rebel Transitional National Council, which so far has publicly rejected any suggestion of foreign troops on the ground as NATO warplanes enforce a US-mandated no-fly zone designed to protect civilians.

Government spokesman Francois Baroin said "fewer than 10" officers are involved, and repeated France's position: "We are not envisaging troops on the ground, in any shape or form."

US officials said that Washington supports the dispatch of advisers but would steer clear of "boots on the ground" by US forces.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama "obviously was aware of this decision and supports it, and hopes and believes it will help the opposition."

"But it does not at all change the president's policy of no boots on the ground for American troops."

A senior American diplomat, meanwhile, told lawmakers in a letter obtained by AFP on Wednesday, that Obama plans to provide the rebels with up to $25 million in urgent, non-lethal aid.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted the equipment was coming from US government stock, saying: "There are no new purchases, this is not a blank check."

Clinton added that the US believes the new effort may help end the conflict.

"We want to get to a point where there is a resolution and it has to be a political resolution, but it may not be as quick as all of us would like to see it, and I think there is a lot of effort being put into the political outreach that is going to be necessary to try to resolve this," she said in a PBS interview.

Rebel leaders in Misrata desperately pleaded for foreign soldiers to help them battle Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi's forces, who have been pounding the city for more than six weeks, in fighting a doctor said had claimed at least 1,000 lives.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said London would send 12 military advisers to eastern Libya, but that they would not be involved in training or arming the rebels, or help in planning operations.

Italy's Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa, meanwhile, said his country would also send 10 army advisers to aid the rebels. "There is a clear understanding that the rebels have to be trained," La Russa said.

TNC head Mustafa Abdel Jalil, after meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris, said Libyan rebels expect "major strikes by the coalition" against forces loyal to Kadhafi.

"We are sure that Kadhafi will be overthrown sooner or later, but we want it to be as soon as possible," he told French television.

Asked whether the conflict would be won by force or negotiation, Jalil told France 24: "We expect there to be major strikes by the coalition, then Libyans can reach a solution."

Libyan Foreign Minister Abdelati Laabidi told the BBC that the presence of any foreign troops in Libya would prolong the conflict.

"We think any military presence is a step backwards, and we are sure that if this bombing stopped and there is a real ceasefire we could have a dialogue among all Libyans about what they want -- democracy, political reform, constitution, election," Laabidi said.

The bombardment of Misrata continued on Wednesday, with loud explosions heard mid-afternoon following a night of heavy fighting.

Two French Mirage fighter jets believed to be involved in operations against Libya were forced to make emergency landings in Malta on Wednesday after running out of fuel, civil aviation sources said.

On Tuesday evening, Nuri Abdullah Abdullati, a senior member of Misrata's governing council, pleaded for help to break the nearly two-month-old Kadhafi siege of the Mediterranean port city.

Previously, he said, "we did not accept any foreign soldiers in our country, but now, as we face these crimes of Kadhafi, we are asking on the basis of humanitarian and Islamic principles for someone to come and stop the killing."

In Geneva, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay condemned the reported repeated use of cluster munitions and heavy weaponry by government forces in the siege of Misrata.

"Using imprecise weaponry such as cluster munitions, multiple rocket launchers and mortars, and other forms of heavy weaponry, in crowded urban areas will inevitably lead to civilian casualties," Pillay said.

She warned regime forces that "their orders and actions will be subject to intense scrutiny."

© 2011 AFP

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