NATO: Gadhafi is using human shields to curb airstrikes

/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

Moammar Gadhafi is using human shields to foil air strikes on his forces, NATO officials said on Wednesday as rebels angry at alleged Western inaction battled anew to advance on the key coast road.

In their eastern heartland, ill-trained rebels set out yet again to retake terrain lost in several headlong retreats from Gadhafi's superior firepower, reporting heavy fighting west of their frontline town of Ajdabiya as both sides tried to end a ragged stalemate in the oil-producing state's civil war.

Mohamed el-Masrafy, a member of a rebel special forces unit, said clashes broke out at 6 a.m. (11 p.m. ET Tuesday) after government forces were resupplied with ammunition and swung eastwards out of the oil port of Brega, 50 miles from Ajdabiya.

NATO found itself on the defensive against rebel complaints that airstrikes had subsided since it took over the mission from a U.S.-British-French coalition last week.

Spokeswoman Carmen Romero maintained that "the pace of our operations continues unabated. The ambition and the position of our strikes has not changed."

She said that relieving the siege of Misrata, a rebel enclave in the west, remained the priority but conceded that Gadhafi's army was proving a resourceful, elusive target.

"The situation on the ground is constantly evolving. Gadhafi's forces are changing tactics, using civilian vehicles, hiding tanks in cities such as Misrata and using human shields to hide behind," Romero told reporters in Brussels.

She reiterated NATO's position that air power had destroyed 30 percent of Gadhafi's military capacity thus far.

Western air power has fashioned a rough military balance in Libya, preventing Gadhafi troops from overrunning the motley rebel force dominating the east — but not forceful enough for the insurgents to advance solidly hundreds of miles along the Mediterranean coast to the capital Tripoli in the west.

The rebels have said the alliance has been slow to launch airstrikes against government troops on the eastern front lines and that allowed the opposition to be routed from the oil port of Brega.

"NATO is not doing their job, the airstrikes are late and never on time. NATO is not helping us. Gadhafi still gets ammunition and supplies to his forces, that's why he is pushing us back," said Pvt. Mohammed Abdullah, a 30-year-old former member of Gadhafi's army who has joined the rebel side. "We don't know what he would be able to do if there are no airstrikes."

Former congressman to meet Gadhafi Meanwhile, a former Republican congressman was due to meet with Moammar Gadhafi Wednesday in a bid to persuade the Libyan leader to step down and allow democratic elections.

Writing in The New York Times, Curt Weldon said it would be "very hard" to bomb Gadhafi into submission and suggested one of his sons, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, could play a "constructive role" in a new government.

Weldon, a representative from Pennsylvania from 1987 to 2007, who has been to Libya and met Gadhafi before, said there were others within the regime who could be part of any "new Libya."

"First, we must engage face-to-face with Colonel Qaddafi and persuade him to leave, as my delegation hopes to do. I've met him enough times to know that it will be very hard to simply bomb him into submission," Weldon wrote, using a different spelling of Gadhafi's name.

"Simultaneously, we must obtain an immediate United Nations-monitored cease-fire, with the Libyan Army withdrawing from contested cities and rebel forces ending attempts to advance," he added. "Then we must identify and engage with those leaders who, if not perfect, are pragmatic and reform-minded and thus best positioned to lead the country."

An uprising in Libya ousts dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

He said the Libyan prime minister, Baghdadi Mahmudi, and Mustapha Abdul Jalil, the head of the rebel National Council, should meet with the United Nations envoy to the country to "work out a schedule for fair elections for a new president and legislature."

Seif Gadhafi also "could play a constructive role as a member of the committee to devise a new government structure or Constitution," Weldon wrote, despite noting his "belligerent comments" about the rebels.

"The world agrees that Colonel Qaddafi must go, even though no one has a plan, a foundation for civil society has not been constructed and we are not even sure whom we should trust. But in the meantime, the people of Libya deserve more than bombs," he added.

He said he was leading a "small, private delegation" at the invitation of Gadhafi's chief of staff and " with the knowledge of the Obama administration and members of Congress from both parties."

U.S. envoy with rebelsA U.S. envoy has also arrived in Benghazi, site of rebel headquarters, to get to know the opposition and discuss possible financial and humanitarian assistance, a U.S. official said.

The visit by Chris Stevens, former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, reflects a U.S. effort to deepen contacts with the rebels, whose uprising began on Feb. 15.

Meanwhile, it emerged Wednesday that Jordan has sent fighter aircraft to a European air base to support a no-fly zone over Libya and protect humanitarian flights from the Arab kingdom.

Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh was quoted as saying by the Jordan Times newspaper that Royal Jordanian Air Force fighter aircraft landed at the base two days ago. He did not say how many fighter jets had been sent.

The official Petra News Agency said Judeh told newspaper editors that Jordan was offering "logistical support for enforcement of the no-fly zone mandated by a United Nations resolution."

It said he told the editors that the fighter aircraft would also protect the aid flights, the first of which landed at Benghazi airport on Monday.

Qatar was the first Arab country to contribute planes to police the no-fly zone. Last Thursday a French armed forces spokesman said fighter jets from the United Arab Emirates had arrived at an air base in Sardinia to support NATO's Libya operation.

The news of Jordan's involvement came after the head of Libya's rebel army accused NATO of being too slow to order airstrikes and allowing Gadhafi's forces to slaughter the people of the besieged city of Misrata.