U.S. Senator John McCain is meeting with rebel leaders in Benghazi Friday, pushing for more U.S. and Western support for their cause. The visit comes as rebel fighters made small gains on the ground in the besieged western Libyan city of Misrata and along the border with Tunisia.
The visit marks the highest level trip to the main rebel-controlled city by a top American official. It comes amid small, but significant steps to bolster the rebels and to protect Libyan civilians.
McCain told reporters that he had come to get a better picture of the rebels, whom he said he admires.
"I came here to get an on the ground assessment of the situation….We are meeting with the [rebel transitional] council, we’re meeting with the military, we’re meeting with lots of people. The [rebel fighters] are my heroes," McCain said.
Senator McCain’s visit comes hours after U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the U.S. Congress that President Barack Obama had approved the use of unmanned drone aircraft in Libya to carry out missile strikes to protect Libyan civilians.
NATO aircraft have had difficulty in making strikes in heavily populated urban areas, where fighting is taking place in cramped quarters, amid street to street battles. U.S. military officials say drone aircraft are better adapted to hit urban targets, in places like Misrata.
Rebel fighters in Misrata have urged NATO to provide more help to protect Libyan civilians. Hundreds of civilians have been killed or wounded during over six weeks of fighting in Misrata.
In the Libyan capital Tripoli, government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim slammed NATO support for the rebels, vowing to turn the country into "hell" if NATO forces entered Misrata or any Libyan city:
"If NATO comes to Misrata or any Libyan city we will unleash hell upon NATO," he warned. "We will be a ball of fire. Libya will become one man, one woman fighting for freedom. We will make it ten times as bad as Iraq."
Libyan government television says NATO planes killed a number of civilian workers at a water plant in the port city of Syrte. There was no independent confirmation of the claim.
Meanwhile in Baghdad, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the conflict in Libya was "moving towards a stalemate," reiterating recent statements by U.S. and Western military commanders.
Mullen stressed that embattled Libyan leader Colonel Moammar Gadhafi "has got to go," but was uncertain how long it would take to dislodge him.