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Gadhafi Forces Pummel Misrata as U.S. Deploys Armed Predator Drones

April 21, 2011 at 5:58 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: The U.S. today added a new weapon to the fighting in Libya: unmanned planes carrying missiles. That news came as rebels claimed they have seized a post on the Tunisian border. But the Libyan government claimed it holds more than 80 percent of Misrata, after weeks of fighting there.

The siege of Misrata continued today with devastating effect and estimates of at least 600 dead so far. The forces of Moammar Gadhafi have Libya’s third-largest city surrounded on three sides, firing mortars, rockets and tank shells night and day. In turn, the rebels stepped up their pleas this week that NATO do more to defend the city.

SULIMAN FORTEA, National Transition Council: That is what could be done by any — any — any way or anyhow, either troops or latest technology and latest weapons.

JIM LEHRER: So far, the NATO campaign has been limited to airstrikes, under a U.N. mandate to protect Libyan civilians.

Today U.S. Defense Secretary Gates announced armed Predator drones will now further aid that effort from the air. But he said NATO has bright lines it will not cross on the ground.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES: They are very concerned about not going beyond the mandate of the U.N. Security Council resolution. And — and most of the opposition has said they don’t want foreign troops on the ground.

JIM LEHRER: But now the British, French and Italians have announced they are sending in small numbers of military advisers to aid the highly inexperienced rebel forces.

In a radio interview this morning British Prime Minister Cameron insisted it is not a prelude to inserting ground forces.

DAVID CAMERON, British prime minister: The U.N. Security Council does limit us. We’re not allowed, rightly, to have an invading army or an occupying army. That’s not what we want; that’s not what the Libyans want; it’s not what the world wants.

JIM LEHRER: In Tripoli, a spokesman for the Libyan government warned against any move to deploy outside forces on the ground.

MUSSA IBRAHIM, Libyan government spokesman: But if NATO comes to Misrata or any — any Libyan city, we will unleash the hell upon NATO.

JIM LEHRER: There will be no American advisory unit sent to Libya. But, yesterday the U.S. did announce $25 million in nonlethal aid to the rebels, such as body armor, boots and uniforms.

Secretary Gates said today it’s still too soon to give them more sophisticated arms.

ROBERT GATES: I’m not worried about our canteen technology falling into the wrong hands but I think there’s still a lot we don’t know about the opposition.

JIM LEHRER: Officially, at least, the NATO objective does not include ousting Gadhafi.

At the same time, President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron and French President Sarkozy have all said Gadhafi’s removal is the ultimate objective. But more than a month into the campaign in Libya, the colonel remains in power.

After leading the initial airstrikes the U.S. handed off responsibility at the end of March, although American planes still fly 25 percent of sorties. In all, just six of the 28 NATO nations are taking part in bombing missions. Others are protecting the no-fly zone. And NATO’s largest European nation Germany is not participating at all.

Those divisions were laid bare yesterday by British Defense Minister Liam Fox after a meeting with his Italian counterpart.

LIAM FOX, U.K. secretary of state for defense: And we have had a very stark reminder of the countries in Europe who are willing to stand up, and not just talk about international law and not just talk about moral responsibilities.

JIM LEHRER: In Washington today, Secretary Clinton had a more conciliatory take.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: We have a lot of confidence in NATO and our partners. We know their capacity. We’re very satisfied with the activities and performance of our allies and others who are participating in this effort.

JIM LEHRER: There was also a warning from Moscow. The Russian foreign minister said any escalation of NATO’s role could have unpredictable consequences.