BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton pledged support for rebels in east Libya on Sunday, making the most senior visit to the area by a foreign official since the revolt against Muammar Gaddafi began.
“We are here for the long term and what we can offer is support to Libyan institutions and the economy. We will be here to support you all the way,” Ashton said in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, where she opened an EU representative office.
France, Britain and other European states have backed Libya’s poorly trained and equipped rebels against a government that has held onto power for more than four decades.
French planes were the first to bomb Gaddafi’s forces in March after the United Nations voted to allow intervention to protect civilians. The air strikes, now led by NATO, were launched as Gaddafi’s troops advanced on Benghazi after the Libyan leader vowed “no mercy, no pity.”
“I’m very clear that protecting civilians and the people of Libya is fundamental,” said Ashton. “Too many people have died already it is important to realize that Gaddafi should leave.”
Ashton’s visit “shows the increased support of the European Union in supporting us to have a democratic and free state,” said the head of the Benghazi-based National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil.
“The Libyan people appreciate this visit and appreciate the European Union for supporting the revolution,” he said.
Several Libyans surrounded her in the city where the revolt against Gaddafi began in mid-February, flashing “V-for-Victory” signs. One man said: “Every Libyan is very happy.”
Libya denounced the visit.
“The visit itself gives the impression of recognition of an illegal entity,” the Libyan Foreign Ministry said in a statement on the state news agency Jana. “It aims to divide Libya.”
It said the EU should instead be looking for a peaceful solution to the current conflict “to save the blood of Libyans and strengthen the unity of Libya and its territorial integrity in accordance with the U.N. Security Council resolutions.”
It added it would pursue this matter at a forthcoming African Union extraordinary meeting on Wednesday and Thursday.
NATO airstrikes that began on March 31 have stopped Gaddafi’s tanks on their tracks, preventing them from overrunning rebel-held towns.
But an uneasy stalemate has since settled on the battle space with a nearly static frontline in the east in the desert between the towns of Ajdabiyah and Brega, and fighting in western Libya around the rebel controlled city of Misrata.
In Misrata, residents also hailed the West for intervening, their city scarred from weeks of street fighting and bombardment by shells and rockets. Residents searched for food from poorly stocked shops on Sunday, while rebels stripped weapons from the carcasses of Muammar Gaddafi’s tanks and armoured vehicles.
Rebels say they have pushed Gaddafi’s forces 25 km (15 miles) from the center of Misrata after weeks of street fighting and bombardment. Government forces shelled residential areas of Misrata on Saturday, according to rebels.
“If God hadn’t brought us NATO, they would have burned us all,” said Amran Zoufrey, 84. “Even in the Second World War, when I was young, we didn’t have this destruction. Now I wonder when the next rocket will come and kill me.”
Gutted restaurants were heaped with tables, chairs and shattered glass. A clock atop a tower in a central square had stopped at 7.45. The turret of a dismembered tank was leaning upright against the entrance to a watch shop.
“It’s a catastrophe but we have hope. We’ve liberated our city,” said Ali el-Houti, a 42-year-old civil servant, as he walked through the street.
The sound of battle rumbled in the distance. Abdelsalam, a rebel spokesman in Misrata, reported fighting in Defniyah, 30 km west of the city, and in Kararim, about 35 km to the east.
He said Gaddafi’s forces are bombarding Defniyah from the nearby town of Zlitan, with one rebel killed and four others wounded in clashes between troops and rebel forces on Saturday.
In the east, Gaddafi’s forces ambushed a group of rebels east of the contested oil town of Brega, near al-Arbaeen, a desert outpost on the coast road from rebel-held Ajdabiyah.
“The rebels sent forces to check out the al-Arbaeen area, then Gaddafi forces surrounded them and started attacking with heavy weaponry,” said Baloun el-Ferjani. “Forces of the national (rebel) army intervened to help.”
A rebel fighter and an ambulance driver were killed, he said, and 12 insurgents were wounded.
In the capital, NATO planes hit a site near Gaddafi’s compound late on Saturday. Libyan officials said the alliance had attacked close to Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziyah complex.
There was no immediate word on the target of the attack, and reporters escorted by Libyan officials were unable to get close.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas in Misrata and Joseph Logan in Tripoli; Writing by Adam Tanner in Rabat and Jan Harvey in Tunis; Editing by Jon Hemming