TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libyan rebels reported heavy fighting in the besieged city of Misrata on Tuesday and France said NATO must step up bombing to stop Muammar Gaddafi’s forces attacking civilians.
“It is not acceptable that Misrata is still under fire and being bombarded by Gaddafi’s troops,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in Luxembourg.
NATO took over air operations from a coalition of the United States, Britain and France on March 31 and rebels have accused it of not doing enough, although they recently toned down criticism.
Despite NATO raids, the government bombardment of Misrata, the last rebel stronghold in western Libya, has continued unabated with hundreds of civilians reported killed.
Insurgents said renewed artillery bombardments and heavy fighting hit the city on Tuesday and they had beaten back two government offensives. Misrata, under siege for more than six weeks, is surrounded on three sides and the plight of civilians is said to be desperate.
The criticism of NATO by France, which pushed for Western intervention in Libya, followed the collapse of an African Union peace initiative on Monday.
Juppe told France Info radio: “It’s not enough.”
He said NATO must stop Gaddafi shelling civilians and take out the heavy weapons bombarding Misrata. In a barbed reference to the alliance command of the operation, Juppe added: “NATO must play its role fully. It wanted to take the lead in operations, we accepted that.”
Speaking after meeting European Union foreign ministers in Luxembourg later, Juppe said NATO should “exert the most efficient military pressure. We need to be more efficient.”
NATO, which is operating under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians, rejected the criticism.
“NATO is conducting its military operations in Libya with vigour within the current mandate. The pace of the operations is determined by the need to protect the population,” it said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said NATO must intensify its efforts, calling on other alliance countries to match London’s supply of extra ground attack aircraft in Libya.
But a British official in Brussels denied Hague was joining French criticism and said London was happy with the way the operation was being run.
Libyan state television said a NATO strike on the town of Kikla, south of Tripoli, had killed civilians and members of the police force. NATO denied the report, saying it had targeted two tanks 21 kms (13 miles) away.
Human Rights Watch says at least 250 people, mostly civilians, have died in Misrata, which is subjected to daily shelling and rocket fire.
Analysts say it is vital to Gaddafi’s survival because it supplies Tripoli and transport planes cannot fly because of NATO‘S no-fly zone.
A rebel spokesman in Zintan said Gaddafi’s forces had fired mortars into the besieged town in the Western Mountains region, which is inhabited by ethnic Berbers.
He said government soldiers, unable to get into Zintan, were targeting people in nearby villages, burning houses and poisoning wells.
Rejecting the African peace plan on Monday, rebels said there could be no deal unless Gaddafi was toppled. His son Saif al Islam said such an idea was ridiculous. The African Union said peace efforts would continue.
Rebel leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil on Tuesday thanked Western countries for the air strikes but said they could not relieve besieged cities and appealed for arms and supplies.
“NATO’s air fleet cannot deliver the occupied cities where Gaddafi’s forces, using the civilian populations as a human shield, have now taken cover,” he said in a statement.
The insurgents needed time to build an army capable of toppling the Libyan leader, he said.
Abdel Jalil pointedly named French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who the rebels hail as a hero, as the leader of the coalition supporting his forces.
Sarkozy led calls for military intervention in Libya and his warplanes were the first to attack Gaddafi’s forces.
NATO is unpopular among many insurgents, both because they believe it initially reacted slowly to government attacks and because it has killed almost 20 rebels in two mistaken bombings.
Gaddafi’s forces on Tuesday bombarded the western entrance to Ajdabiyah, launch point for insurgent attacks towards the oil port of Brega on the eastern front. There were eight blasts, apparently from artillery.
Rebels said earlier they were about 40 km (25 miles) west of Ajdabiyah, a strategic crossroads that has been the focus of fierce battles in the last two months.
It guards the gateway to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi 150 km (90 miles) north up the Mediterranean coast.
Amnesty International accused Gaddafi forces of executing prisoners, killing protesters and attacking refugees.
French criticism of NATO may reflect frustration with U.S. withdrawal from air strikes and limited support by other alliance members for the military campaign, as well as paving the way to blame NATO for a stalemate that could leave Gaddafi in power.
Analysts said Juppe’s remarks could be a pre-emptive move against possible criticism that Sarkozy rushed the West into an unwinnable war in Libya.
The difficulty for Western nations in maintaining momentum in Libya was shown in a Reuters/Ipsos MORI on Tuesday that found ambiguous and uncertain support for the operation among Britons, Americans and Italians.
While they supported ousting Gaddafi, they were worried about the costs of a military campaign and uncertain about the objectives. Support was more solid in France.
Gaddafi’s former foreign minister Moussa Koussa, speaking in Britain where he fled last month, said on Tuesday the war risked making Libya a failed state like Somalia.
Koussa, who will attend an international meeting on Libya’s future in Doha on Wednesday, called for national unity in an interview with the BBC.
Additional reporting by Michael Georgy in Ajdabiyah, Souhail Karam and Richard Lough in Rabat, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Christian Lowe in Algiers, John Irish in Paris, Adrian Croft in Luxembourg; Writing by Barry Moody;