NATO on Thursday threw its weight behind growing calls for Muammer Gaddafi to quit, as rebels fighting to topple the veteran Libyan strongman reported an intensive blitz by alliance warplanes and as loud blasts were heard in Tripoli.
The port area of Libya’s besieged third city Misrata came under heavy attack by Gaddafi’s forces, who fired dozens of Grad missiles and tank shells that killed at least 13 people and wounded 50, a rebel spokesman said.
The key crossroads town of Ajdabiya on the front line between the rebel-held east and the mainly government-held west, recaptured from loyalist forces at the weekend, came under renewed assault, a correspondent reported.
In Cairo, UN chief Ban Ki-moon called for a “political” solution and immediate ceasefire, at an international conference hosted by the Arab League.
European Union foreign policy Chief Catherine Ashton, who also attended the Cairo conference, appealed to Gaddafi to resign with immediate effect.
And a NATO declaration said “we welcome the outcome of the first meeting of the contact group which took place yesterday (Wednesday) in (the Qatari capital) Doha and strongly endorse its call for Gaddafi to leave power.”
Alliance foreign ministers played down any rift after France and Britain pressed allies to contribute more combat jets to the mission and intensify the raids against regime tanks and artillery shelling civilians.
“We are also sharing the same goal which is to see the end of the Gaddafi regime in Libya. And we are contributing in many ways in order to see that goal realised,” said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
She later told NATO allies: “For our part, the US is committed to our shared mission. We will strongly support the coalition until our work is completed.”
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, whose country shocked allies by refusing to back the UN resolution authorising the military operation, said NATO supports the aspirations of the Libyan people.
“We are united by the common goal, that we want a free and democratic Libya. The dictator Gaddafi, who started a civil war against his own people, must go,” Westerwelle said at the start of the two-day meeting in Berlin.
But differences remained over the air raids against forces threatening the population, which are being conducted by just six of the 28 allies. Rebels have urged NATO to step up the air campaign as the mission has failed to shift the balance of power so far.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Wednesday’s meeting in Qatar of the international contact group on Libya, which promised the rebels cash and the means to defend themselves, “laid out a good foundation.”
“We will now discuss how we can continue the military operation leading to a successful result,” he said.
Military action was first launched by Britain, France and the United States on March 19, but NATO took over the operation two weeks ago after overcoming French reservations about letting the Western military organisation alliance lead it.
The Berlin meeting came as NATO planes put on a show of force on the Libyan front line, with rebels reporting they were bombing targets on the road leading west, towards the key oil refinery town of Brega on the central Mediterranean coast.
A correspondent heard loud explosions just west of the town of Ajdabiya, where deadly exchanges raged on Saturday and Sunday killing dozens of loyalist troops and an undisclosed number of rebel fighters.
There was no immediate confirmation from NATO that warplanes under its command were engaged.
Loud explosions rocked the capital Tripoli close to Gaddafi’s residence in the Bab al-Aziziya neighbourhood, a correspondent reported.
Warplanes were heard swooping at low altitude over the city centre near the hotel where most foreign journalists are based and veteran leader Gaddafi has his residence.
Large explosions struck around 3 pm (1300 GMT) followed by anti-aircraft fire and two more loud blasts less than an hour later.
A Western official speaking to a news agency on condition of anonymity said French, British and Italian military attaches were now in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and they were providing indirect information about the situation at the front line to NATO.
Mahmud Jibril, who handles foreign policy for the rebels’ Transitional National Council, was expected in Washington to meet with senior State and Defence Department officials as well as with congressional leaders.
“These meetings will allow us to continue to have a better sense of the opposition and the TNC and its vision for Libya,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
The final statement in Doha said the parties “agreed to set up a temporary financial mechanism to act as a means for the Transitional National Council and international community to manage aid revenues and secure short-term financial needs.” It gave no figures.
Mahmud Shammam, a spokesman for the rebels, said: “We will not use this money at all to buy weapons. It will be used for the basic needs of the Libyan people.”
Misrata, where NATO jets have been bombing Kadhafi’s forces in a bid to break a weeks-old siege on the rebel-held city about 215 kilometres (130 miles) east of Tripoli, was said by the rebels to be under heavy attack.
“We have faced since dawn a cowardly and criminal attack on the area of the port and the district of Kasr Ahmed near the port,” a rebel spokesman said, adding that pro-Kadhafi forces fired dozens of Grad missiles and tank shells.
“The toll will obviously worsen. We are still searching for other victims under the debris of houses,” he added, reached by telephone.
The besieged city gained some relief however with the arrival of a French Red Cross boat carrying 80 tonnes of food and medical supplies, the aid group said.
The aid has already been handed over to the local Red Crescent which will distribute it to inhabitants, to displaced foreigners including Egyptians, Ghanians and Chadians, and to a few Europeans awaiting evacuation, it said. Agencies