US launches first drone attacks to break deadlock with Gaddafi

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The Independent Online

The US is now using armed Predator drones over Libya to help the rebels in their seemingly deadlocked insurgency against the forces of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

This enlarged US involvement was disclosed yesterday by Defence Secretary Robert Gates. It follows the decision of Britain, France and Italy to send military trainers and a State Department announcement that Washington will provide $25m of equipment – not arms – for the rebels.

Mr Gates said last night that the unmanned Predators, with their ability to operate with extraordinary accuracy in urban areas, would allow for "some precision capability" against the better-equipped Gaddafi forces, and offer a "modest contribution" to Nat support for the Libyan rebels.

However, the project got off to a bad start as the first mission was scrubbed due to bad weather.

Predator drones are already used to target militants along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Their use of has been criticised by the United Nations and the Pakistani government has made repeated protests as strikes often result in civilian deaths.

Mr Gates insisted, however, that President Obama continued to be against sending US ground forces into Libya, even in the shape of trainers, to assist Nato forces. From the outset Washington, anxious not to give the impression it was leading a third war against a Muslim country, has made clear there would be no American "boots on the ground" in Libya.

"There's no wiggle room in that," the Defence Secretary added.

David Cameron echoed these concerns yesterday, insisting there is no prospect of British forces becoming part of an "occupying army" in Libya. The Prime Minister said: "We're not allowed, rightly, to have an invading army, or an occupying army."

The news comes as the British Government, growing increasingly frustrated at the reluctance of some European allies to contribute, is turning to the US for military help in its efforts to drive Colonel Gaddafi's resurgent forces out of Misrata.

The rebels in Misrata, the only significant western city still in their hands, despite an eight-week onslaught, have voiced their scepticism about the level of Western commitment. A rebel commander in the city, Amar Ahmed Husseini, said yesterday: "Nato keeps saying they will do more, but the Gaddafi men still keep firing rockets every day and our people are dying."

As loyalist forces renewed attacks on the city – with least 17 people dying yesterday, including women and children – Whitehall sources expressed frustration at the level of involvement from fellow Nato members in Europe. They said some countries had failed to make good on promises of involvement.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy nonetheless insisted the alliance was ready to step up operations in Misrata. Mr Sarkozy, who won approval in Benghazi for his early support, told the head of the opposition's provisional government, Mustafa Abdel Jalil: "We are going to intensify the attacks and respond to the request. We will help you."

But in Brussels, a Nato official, Brigadier General Mark van Uhm, stressed: "There is a limit to what can be achieved by air power to stop fighting in the city."

After a week touring European capitals to drum up support, the UK Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, is preparing to head to Washington on Monday with David Richards, Chief of the Defence Staff, in an attempt to persuade US officials that they should relax the strict limitations on their involvement.

The decision by Western powers to send military advisers was criticised by Russia, which charged that this far exceeded the mandate of the UN Security Council.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that the move could worsen the violence, resulting in "hundreds of people dying on both sides". The 17 deaths yesterday followed the deaths 24 hours earlier of the British photojournalist Tim Hetherington and US photographer Chris Hondros. The remains of the two journalists were ferried out of the city in an aid ship, along with hundreds trying to escape the violence.

The bodies will be taken to Benghazi, before being repatriated. Mr Hetherington, 41, was killed a day after he tweeted: "In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Gaddafi forces. No sign of Nato."

The revolutionaries appeared to have made an unexpected and rare advance at Libya's western frontier, where they took over the checkpoint at Wazin.

This followed dozens of regime troops, including a general, turning themselves in to Tunisian authorities.

Misrata, meanwhile, is counting the cost of defiance. At a clinic run by the Red Crescent, Dr Ibrahim Mahmoudi said: "We are getting casualties, some with severe trauma, coming in every day and this has been the pattern for quite a while.

"Even the best-equipped facilities would find it extremely difficult to cope with this, so a place like this is under intense pressure."

Regional round-up

Egypt An Egyptian court ordered the name of the ousted President Hosni Mubarak and his wife Suzanne to be removed from all public facilities and institutions, the latest step in dismantling the legacy of the former leader's 29 years in power.

Hundreds of schools, streets, squares and libraries bear the name of the former leader or his wife, as well as a major subway station in central Cairo. Now all those will have to go, in a new blow to Mr Mubarak, who was ousted on 11 February and last week was put under detention in a hospital while he is investigated on charges of corruption and the deadly shooting of protesters.

Yemen Yemen's embattled President could hand over power to a successor of his choice and leave within a month to resolve the country's political crisis, according to a new plan from a group of Gulf Arab nations. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's leader of 32 years, has been clinging to power in the face of two months of massive street protests.

The proposal, revealed by a senior government official, was a second attempt to mediate the crisis by the six-nation Gulf Co-operation Council. Mr Saleh's opponents called for him to step down immediately.

Syria President Bashar al-Assad ended Syria's state of emergency yesterday in an attempt to defuse mass protests.

His announcement came ahead of what activists described as "Great Friday" protests in several Syrian cities when more people are expected to take to the streets after Friday prayers.

Thousands of Syrians have demonstrated to demand greater freedom in their police-controlled country, presenting Mr Assad with the most serious and sustained challenge of his 11-year rule. AP