* No decisive trend on battlefield despite month of bombing
* Putin says West has no right to “execute” Gaddafi
* Troops bombard Berber towns in Western Mountains
(Adds Fox, Gates, other details)
By Lin Noueihed
TRIPOLI, April 26 (Reuters) - British and U.S. officials met on Tuesday to discuss how to step up military pressure on Muammar Gaddafi, as the Libyan leader’s army fought fierce clashes with rebels in besieged Misrata.
More than a month of air strikes in a British and French-led NATO mission have failed to dislodge Gaddafi or bring major gains for anti-government rebels who hold much of east Libya, raising fears of a stalemate.
British Defence Secretary Liam Fox and Britain’s Chief of the Defence Staff General David Richards met U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington.
“The meeting will be about how we can put military pressure on the regime, and that will include the tooth and the tail — the people pulling the trigger to kill civilians in Misrata and the people supplying them,” a Ministry of Defence source said.
Planes flattened a building in Gaddafi’s compound on Monday in what his officials called an assassination attempt. NATO denies trying to kill him.
After the Washington talks, Gates said the coalition was not targeting Gaddafi specifically. Fox said there had been some “momentum” in the Libyan conflict in recent days.
Western forces have run out of obvious targets to bomb, say analysts, without achieving a clear military result.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused the coalition of exceeding its U.N. mandate to protect civilians.
“They said they didn’t want to kill Gaddafi. Now some officials say, yes, we are trying to kill Gaddafi,” Putin said during a visit to Denmark. “Who permitted this, was there any trial? Who took on the right to execute this man?
“Is there a lack of such crooked regimes in the world? What, are we going to intervene in all these conflicts? Look at Africa, look at Somalia,” he said. “Are we going to bomb everywhere and conduct missile strikes?”
Libya’s state news agency Jana said Tripoli had urged Russia to call an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow has a permanent seat.
As Libya has descended into civil war, counter-attacks by government forces have underlined that Gaddafi has no intention of being overthrown like the leaders in Egypt and Tunisia in the tide of unrest that has rolled across the Arab world.
The Libyan leader has vowed to fight to the death, blaming foreign powers and al Qaeda for the insurgency.
The war has split the oil producer, Africa’s fourth biggest, into a government-held western area round the capital Tripoli and an eastern region held by ragged but dedicated rebels.
Troops loyal to Gaddafi have extended their campaign to pound Berber towns in the Western Mountains while battling rebels around the port of Misrata, apparently with the aim of severing the western city from its one lifeline, the sea.
“The troops launched an attack on an eastern area in a bid to control the port. Fierce fighting is taking place there now,” rebel spokesman Abdelsalam said by phone from Misrata.
While world attention has been on Misrata and battles further east, fighting has intensified in the Western Mountains.
Flanked by deserts, the mountain range stretches west for over 150 km (90 miles) from south of Tripoli to Tunisia, and is inhabited by Berbers who are ethnically distinct from most Libyans and long viewed with suspicion by the government.
Western Mountains towns joined the wider revolt against Gaddafi’s rule in February. They fear they are now paying the price while NATO efforts to whittle down Gaddafi’s forces from the air are concentrated on bigger population centres.
A rebel spokesman, called Abdulrahman, told Reuters from the town of Zintan in the Western Mountains: “It is quiet today but we fear shelling tonight. Gaddafi’s forces have bombarded us with Grad rockets for four days after sunset.”
“Four people were killed on Sunday including an elderly woman. Three people were also wounded including a 11-year old girl,” he said, adding:
“We have not heard any air strike by NATO forces for, I think, four days. They attacked Gaddafi’s soldiers in an area north of Zintan on Friday but the troops are still there hiding in valleys.”
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said 30,000 people had fled the Western Mountains for Tunisia in the past three weeks, leaving the towns of Nalut and Wazin virtually deserted.
“Only a few men could be seen there — no women and children,” the agency said in a statement.
A British military spokesman, Major General John Lorimer, said British planes were in action at the weekend around Misrata, Yafran, Ajdabiyah and Brega, destroying tanks, rockets, missile launchers and armoured personnel carriers.
Around Brega, the Libyan army reinforced its positions and dug in its long-range missile batteries to conceal them from attacks by NATO planes, a rebel army officer said on Tuesday.
Comments by rebel officer Abdul Salam Mohammed suggested Gaddafi now had clear control of the fought-over town.
“There are 3,000 government troops in Brega and the next two towns. They have been building up their presence,” he told Reuters on the western edge of the town of Ajdabiyah.
“We are controlling the area from here to al-Arbeen (halfway to Brega) but they still have snipers in the area, hiding in the desert behind the sand dunes, and they are active,” he added.
The United States, the United Nations and European Union imposed sanctions on the Libyan government and selected Libyan companies in late February and in March.
But Libya imported gasoline from Italian refiner Saras in April, taking advantage of a loophole in U.N. sanctions that permits purchases by companies not on a U.N. list of banned entities, according to shipping sources.
Fox said on Monday Western forces were interdicting tankers carrying refined oil products.
Britain’s Foreign Minister William Hague told the cabinet on Tuesday to “prepare for the long haul” in Libya. London hopes for international agreement soon on setting up a fund to help the rebel national council in the east, he told parliament.
The African Union has been holding separate talks with Libyan Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi and rebel representatives in Addis Ababa to discuss a ceasefire plan.
The rebels had earlier rebuffed an AU plan because it did not entail Gaddafi’s departure, while the United States, Britain and France say there can be no political solution until the Libyan leader leaves power.
Ramtane Lamamra, AU’s Commissioner for Peace and Security, accused the West of failing to support the Ethiopian-based bloc’s own peace proposal. “Attempts have been made to marginalise an African solution to the crisis,” he said.
Obeidi said Tripoli wanted a special AU meeting “to identify the ways that enable our continent to mobilise capabilities to face the external forces which aggress against us”. (Additional reporting by Guy Desmond and Maher Nazeh in Tripoli, Alexander Dziadosz in Benghazi and Sami Aboudi in Cairo, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Tim Castle and Mohammed Abbas in London; writing by Andrew Roche; editing by Myra MacDonald/Maria Golovnina)