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NATO Dismisses Libyan Rebels' Criticism

Injured men rest inside a Turkish ship carrying 250 wounded people from the besieged Libyan city of Misrata, at a port in Benghazi, April 3 2011
Injured men rest inside a Turkish ship carrying 250 wounded people from the besieged Libyan city of Misrata, at a port in Benghazi, April 3 2011

NATO has dismissed Libyan rebels' criticism of the pace of the alliance's airstrikes against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's military, as pro-Gadhafi forces pounded rebels in the western city of Misrata and sent them retreating from eastern oil towns.

A NATO spokeswoman said Wednesday that the frequency and precision of airstrikes in Libya has not changed since NATO took control over military operations last week. She added that protecting civilians in rebel-held Misrata is NATO's "number-one priority."

The head of Libya's rebel fighters has contended a delay in carrying out airstrikes around Misrata quickly enough has caused civilian deaths.

Abdel Fattah Younes said he may urge rebel leaders to take their grievances to the United Nations Security Council, which authorized the use of force in Libya to stop government troops from harming civilians.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Wednesday the situation in Misrata "cannot continue," and promised talks with the head of NATO.

The French official said pro-Gadhafi forces are hampering NATO's airstrikes by positioning themselves in heavily populated civilian areas, where the alliance finds it difficult to target them precisely.

NATO officials say their air power over Libya is undiminished, but Gadhafi has been using civilians as human shields and hiding his armor in populated areas.

Brigadier General Mark van Uhm, chief of allied operations, said that in Misrata, the alliance has "absolute confirmation" that tanks are being dispersed and humans used as shields "in order to prevent NATO sorties to identify and target those assets."

Rebel officials disputed Van Uhm's claim that civilians are present in all areas where pro-Gadhafi forces are positioned.

The controversy comes as forces loyal to Gadhafi have forced rebels into retreat during fighting near the key eastern towns of Brega and Ajdabiyah.

U.S. envoy Chris Stevens met with members of the opposition Transitional National Council Tuesday in Benghazi to better understand who the rebels are and what they need. Qatar, France and Italy have already granted official recognition to the rebel administration.

Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts to end the conflict continue. Libyan envoy Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi ended a shuttle mission to Greece, Malta and Turkey after setting out Libya's official position. The government said Tuesday that Obeidi has been appointed to replace Moussa Koussa as foreign minister after the close Gadhafi ally defected to Britain.

Both rebel and Western leaders say they will not accept any deal that allows Gadhafi or his sons to stay in power.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.