MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) - A split has opened within the NATO-led air campaign against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, with France and Britain rejecting an Italian call for a halt to military action to allow aid access.
China also signaled a shift in its stance on the conflict, describing as a “dialogue partner” the rebels who, four months into the uprising, are making only slow gains in their effort to reach the capital Tripoli and topple Gaddafi.
Rebels said NATO air strikes hit government weapons depots south of the rebel-held western mountain town of Zintan, while an unverified Libyan TV report said “dozens” of people were killed in a separate NATO attack on the town of Zlitan.
NATO’s first acknowledgment this weekend that it may have caused civilian casualties risks hurting support for a mission that secured a U.N. mandate despite deep misgivings from states in the Arab world, Europe and beyond.
Gaddafi branded NATO states as “murderers” in an audio speech broadcast late on Wednesday, and the deaths have prompted some in the alliance itself to question its tactics.
“The need to look for a ceasefire has become more pressing,” Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told parliament.
“As well as the ceasefire, which is the first stage toward a political negotiation, a humanitarian stop to military action is fundamental to allow immediate humanitarian aid.”
An Italian Foreign Ministry spokesman later clarified that Rome was not making a specific proposal and was interested in any ideas to reduce civilian casualties. But his comments got short shrift from NATO allies.
“We have to intensify the pressure on Gaddafi. Any pause in operations would risk allowing him to gain time and reorganize himself,” said French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero.
Britain, which along with France was one of the first countries to put its weight behind the rebellion, agreed.
“Our position is that this is in Gaddafi’s hands. He has called several ceasefires and none of them have resulted in ceasefires,” Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman said.
“The right approach at the present time is to increase the pressure on Gaddafi.”
A defiant Gaddafi accused NATO states of being murderers of innocent civilians and vowed revenge.
“One day we will respond to you likewise and your homes will be legitimate targets,” he said in an audio speech on state TV.
The date on the screen was June 22 but Gaddafi referred to a June 19 strike on a house in Tripoli after which NATO regretted civilian casualties as “yesterday’s crime,” suggesting he was speaking on June 20 and raising questions over his location.
Time is now a crucial factor for both sides in the conflict, with unity in the NATO-led coalition likely to come under more strain and Gaddafi having to deal with the economic impact of international sanctions.
In a sign of the increasing impact of the crisis on daily life, Libyan state media issued instructions that ordinary people should follow “to deal with the fuel shortage.”
They called on people to use public transport instead of cars, avoid using air conditioning when driving and stick to 90-100 kph (55-63 mph) as the ideal speed. They also asked Libyans to be patient when queuing at petrol stations.
The rebel National Transitional Council got a further boost on Wednesday when China, the only veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council not to have urged Gaddafi to stand down, hosted its diplomatic chief for talks in Beijing.
"China sees you as an important dialogue partner," Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told Mahmoud Jibril, according to comments published on the Chinese Foreign Ministry's website (www.mfa.gov.cn).
The statement, however, stopped short of aligning China with the 19 countries which have recognized the Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people.
Action on the ground was inconclusive. At least three explosions were heard in Tripoli in the morning and again in the afternoon but it was not clear what had caused them.
Additional reporting by Roberto Landucci in Rome, John Irish in Paris, Keith Weir in London, Nick Carey in Tripoli, Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Joseph Nasr in Berlin and Ali Abdelatti in Cairo; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Elizabeth Fullerton