MISRATA (Reuters) - The United States accused some NATO allies on Friday of failing in their commitment to combat Muammar Gaddafi’s forces, as the Libyan leader kept up shelling of the rebel-held town of Misrata.
“The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country — yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference,” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a valedictory speech at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Gates said the alliance, prosecuting an air campaign against Libyan forces, risked a “collective military irrelevance” unless European partners deepenened their commitment and spending.
“The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling (U.S.) appetite and patience ... to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defence,” Gates said.
World powers gave split signals on how the deadlocked civil war might play out, with Russia trying to mediate reconciliation after Western and Arab nations pledged more than $1.1 billion for the rebels and asked them to plan for post-Gaddafi rule.
When asked about fatigue among NATO partners, Dirk Brengelmann, the organisation’s assistant secretary general for political affairs, told Reuters in Rabat that despite difficult discussions in recent days, the alliance was still “sobre and committed” to Libya.
Gates’s exasperation has been echoed by rebels who, after rising up five months ago, have not made significant advances beyond holding the the eastern town of Ajdabiyah as well as Misrata in the west and the Western Mountains range near the Tunisian border.
Though NATO warplanes repeatedly struck the capital Tripoli and a nearby town also under Gaddafi, rebels said the Libyan ruler was pressing offensive operations in several areas, apparently unhindered by the foreign military intervention..
In Misrata, doctors said at least 17 people were killed and 80 wounded in shelling deep in the besieged port city, far from the front line. Rebels put the death toll at 20.
A Reuters journalist earlier saw 10 bodies at the hospital.
“The situation is a stalemate — both sides are adopting hit-and-run tactics,” rebel spokesman Abdelsalam said from Misrata. “NATO has to change something.”
Another rebel spokesman said 22 people had been killed in fighting with pro-Gaddafi forces over the last week and asked why attack helicopters had not been deployed to support them.
The rebels were promised more than $1.1 billion in aid on Thursday by a coalition of Western and Arab countries.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, appearing at the Abu Dhabi meeting of the so-called Libya contact group, said talks were under way with people close to Gaddafi who had raised the “potential” for a transition of power but added: “There is not any clear way forward yet.”
Under pressure to come up with plans for a transitional government while themselves still in disarray, the rebels have said the onus was on foreign powers to hasten assistance.
“Our people are dying,” rebel Oil and Finance Minister Ali Tarhouni said. “So my message to our friends is that I hope they walk the walk.”
Rebels hosted the first foreign leader at their Benghazi stronghold on Thursday, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, who offered to help Gaddafi, his former African Union ally, leave.
“It is in your own interest ... that you leave power in Libya and never dream of coming back,” said Wade.
World consensus on the need to see the long-time leader gone has been amplified by accounts of his regime’s depredations.
At the United Nations, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) this week cited evidence linking Gaddafi to a policy of raping opponents, including issuing of Viagra-like drugs to troops to encourage mass rapes.
Gaddafi says the rebels are Islamist militants and foreign intervention is a front for a grab at the country’s oil.
Another visitor to Benghazi was Mikhail Margelov, Russia’s Africa envoy, who on Friday said he would travel to Tripoli as soon as NATO provided a corridor through its Libyan no-fly zone.
Russia, which has voiced misgivings at the scope of foreign military force and has extensive commercial interests in Libya, wants to mediate reconciliation between Tripoli and the rebels.
Margelov hoped for reconciliation, though he said Gaddafi had “lost the moral right to play a role in Libya’s political life in the future by bombing his own people”.
A memo leaked to the Financial Times suggested U.S. operations in Libya had cost $664 million by mid-May, putting it on course to exceed the original $750 million projection.
Gates’s remarks followed two days of NATO meetings at which he said too few nations were bearing the bulk of the burden in Libya, and singled out five that he urged to do more.
Officials said he asked Spain, Turkey and the Netherlands to fly strike missions in addition to the air operations they currently undertake. He urged Germany and Poland, which are not contributing, to find ways to help, the officials said.
On Friday, Norway said it was cutting the number of its F-16 fighter jets involved in the NATO operation over Libya to four from six, and would end its military contribution from August 1.