Libya rebels say 10,000 killed, Britain offers military aid

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Libyan rebels put the death toll in two months of fighting Moamer Kadhafi's forces at 10,000, while Britain has promised to send military advisers to help rebels organise themselves.

The UN said Tuesday it has sent food for 50,000 people to western Libya as aid groups scrambled to reach trapped civilians.

One month after NATO allies dropped their first bombs on Kadhafi's forces, there appeared no end in sight to what experts are now warning will be a prolonged military stalemate in which civilians casualties will mount.

But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said London would send "experienced" military officers to rebel-held eastern Libya, though he was at pains to say they would not be involved in training or arming the rebels, or help in planning their military operations.

For his part, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he was "entirely hostile" to the idea of sending ground troops into Libya, even special forces to guide air strikes.

With thousands clamouring to escape the besieged rebel city of Misrata, Britain said it would charter ships to pick up 5,000 migrant workers after a ferry rescued nearly 1,000 on Monday.

Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the conflict had so far killed 10,000 people and wounded 55,000, citing figures compiled by the Benghazi-based rebel government.

"The president spoke to us of 10,000 dead and 50,000 to 55,000 injured," Frattini said after talks in Rome with Libyan rebel leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil.

Frattini also said Italy will host talks next month on allowing oil exports from eastern Libya and could provide Libyan rebels with night-vision kit and radars.

He said after his meeting with Jalil that a meeting of the international contact group on Libya in Rome would discuss "legal instruments to allow the sale of oil products."

The meeting would also try to find ways of using assets owned by Kadhafi's regime that have been frozen around the world in order to aid the rebels and would discuss the thorny issue of arming the Libyan rebels, he said.

"We have condemned the violence of the regime in the streets, we have condemned the use of snipers in Tripoli and in the besieged cities ... We can't say this is not our problem," Frattini said.

Italy was weighing the possibility of sending "night-vision equipment, radars and technology to block communications," he said.

Hague said Britain is sending officers to help rebels improve their organisation, communications and logistics.

The UN resolution that authorised international air strikes to protect Libyan civilians expressly forbids any foreign occupation of Libyan soil, and Hague insisted the deployment was "fully within the terms" of that resolution.

"Consistent with our obligations under that resolution, our officers will not be involved in training or arming the opposition's fighting forces," Hague said.

"Nor will they be involved in the planning or execution of the TNC's military operations or in the provision of any other form of operational military advice."

"In particular they will advise the TNC on how to improve their military organisational structures, communications and logistics, including how best to distribute humanitarian aid and deliver medical assistance."

France and Britain, which launched the first air strikes on March 19, have struggled to convince allies to intensify the air war while NATO commanders are scrambling to obtain even a few more ground-attack jets.

Politically, leaders in Paris, London and the United States vowed in a joint letter last week to keep up the campaign until Kadhafi leaves power, but the resilient strongman has defied his Western foes.

"We are going to have to settle in for the long haul. Bombs won't make him go," said Nick Witney, European Council on Foreign Relations security expert, adding that it was up to the Libyan people to sort out their own future.

"I'm afraid that frustrating though it is, one has to accept that in military terms it is a stalemate, and it is going to stay that way until Libyans negotiate a solution to it. We just have to be patient," he said.

But Abdel Jalil said in Rome that Kadhafi would never go unless he was forced to.

Meanwhile, the UN's World Food Programme said in Geneva it had opened up a lifeline from Tunisia.

"We've managed to open up a humanitarian corridor into western Libya," WFP spokeswoman Emilia Casella said.

"A convoy of eight trucks loaded with 240 metric tonnes of wheat flour and 9.1 metric tonnes of high energy biscuits -- enough to feed nearly 50,000 people for 30 days -- crossed yesterday into western Libya from Ras Jedir crossing point at the Libyan-Tunisian border," the relief agency said.

And the UN refugee agency said some 10,000 Libyans have fled in the past 10 days from the besieged Western Mountains region to Tunisia.

"UNHCR is seeing a growing number of Libyan refugees arriving in Tunisia from Libya's Western Mountains regions," Andrej Mahecic, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said in Geneva.

And the UN said Libya's government has granted "safe passage" for United Nations teams in Misrata.

Deputy UN spokesman Farhan Haq said the safe passage was part of an accord on humanitarian access to the capital and other Libyan cities secured in Tripoli on Sunday by UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos.

The Kadhafi government also agreed to let a UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs mission into Misrata, said UN humanitarian spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker.

"We want to assess the situation and determine the needs with our own eyes," Bunker told AFP.

But the head of the Red Crescent in Misrata was sceptical the regime would deliver on its promise, as snipers, cluster bombs and intense shelling spread panic in the city.

"Kadhafi says a lot of nonsense," Omar Abu Zaid told AFP. "We would like anything to help the people of Misrata. But we don't trust Kadhafi."

In fighting, Libya's official news agency JANA reported that NATO air strikes on Tuesday hit Tripoli; Sirte, Moamer Kadhafi's home town and the town of Aziziyah, south of the capital,

There was no immediate indication of casualties or damage caused by the bombings.

Fighting also raged into the night in Zawiya, around 15 kilometres southwest of Misrata's city centre, with heavy incoming fire pounding the residential district, an AFP reporter said.

On Tuesday morning, outgoing rocket fire was heard as the rebels appeared to be targeting the heavy armour of the government troops, as NATO warplanes flew overhead.

© 2011 AFP

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