Tripoli: Forces loyal to Gaddafi have been shelling a route used to ferry supplies from across the Tunisian border to rebel hideouts in the mountains of western Libya, rebels there said on Tuesday.
NATO also vowed that its warplanes would keep up the pressure on Gaddafi’s regime for as long as it takes to end the violence in the North African nation.
Italian Navy Vice Admiral Rinaldo Veri said, having disrupted the regime’s ground forces on the front lines, NATO was now focusing on cutting Gaddafi’s lines of communications with his troops.
The bombing by a U.S.-led international force started seven weeks ago. NATO took over command of aerial operations at the end of March.
The bombing campaign has stymied Gaddafi’s efforts to retake rebel territory, but the ill-trained and badly equipped opposition has been unable to press the advantage and make advances against government forces.
The rebels in western Libya, reached by telephone, said loyalist forces have been firing dozens of rockets at the road to disrupt supplies coming from the rebel-controlled Dhuheiba crossing into Tunisia. Shelling has caused the road to intermittently close.
The Libyan leader has been fighting rebels in the east of his vast oil-rich nation since an uprising against his rule began in February. His forces control most of western Libya save for a string of villages along the mountainous western border and the port city of Misrata.
The U.N. refugee agency, meanwhile, said Tuesday that fighting in the Libya-Tunisia border region has caused an uptick in the number of civilians fleeing Libya into southern Tunisia after a brief interruption last week.
UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said some 8,000 people, mostly ethnic Berber women and children, arrived in Dhuheiba over the weekend. Migrants, many of them from sub-Saharan Africa, are also crossing the Mediterranean to Italy again, he said.
About 3,200 people arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa during the past five days.
Meanwhile, the International Organization for Migration said it was desperately trying to get permission from NATO for its ship, the Red Star One, to dock at the port city of Misrata so that it can evacuate some 1,000 migrants and wounded civilians from the city.
Misrata, a city of some 300,000 people, has been besieged by Gadhafi troops for two months, leaving it entirely dependent on food and medical supplies arriving from the sea. The city has also been intensively shelled by loyalist troops.
IOM Spokesman Jumbe Omari Jumbe said NATO was holding back permission for the ship to dock even as 36 people need urgent evacuation. He did not know the reason for the delay.
Nine of the 36 were currently in Misrata hospital’s seven-bed intensive care unit, he said. Two seriously ill civilians have died while waiting for the ship to pick them up.
“We are going to hang on until there is a clear indication that we can’t go in,” Jumbe said.
He said 23 journalists were also hoping to leave Misrata with IOM’s help.
Outside pressure for Gaddafi to resign has significantly increased on Tuesday.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Libyan leader must “immediately step down.” Gaddafi, he told a news conference in Istanbul, has ignored calls for change in Libya and instead preferred “blood, tears and pressure against his own people.”
“Gadhafi must take a historic step and withdraw, for the future of Libya, its peace and prosperity,” he said.
Previously, Turkish leaders had gently urged Gaddafi to meet demands for change from the opposition, then suggested that he step down. But Erdogan’s comments on Tuesday were his strongest public message to Gaddafi yet.
Turkey initially balked at the idea of military action in Libya, but citing its responsibilities as a NATO member it took part in the enforcement of an arms embargo on Libya while volunteering to lead humanitarian aid efforts.
Turkey has vast trade interests in Libya, where Turkish companies have been involved in lucrative construction projects worth billions of dollars, building hospitals, shopping malls and five-star hotels before the uprising and resulting chaos began.
The Swiss government, for its part, said Monday it had identified 360 million Swiss francs ($415 million) of potential assets to be frozen belonging to Gaddafi or his entourage. Agencies