Rebels reject offer as visiting South African president says Libyan leader is ready to stop fighting.
|A car bomb on Wednesday went off outside a Benghazi hotel that houses rebel officials and journalists [Noreen Jameel]|
NATO has agreed to extend its military campaign in Libya until late September, keeping up pressure on Muammar Gaddafi still in power after 10 weeks of air strikes.
Hours after NATO aircraft launched new raids on Wednesday morning on the Libyan capital, Tripoli, alliance ambassadors, meeting in Brussels decided to renew the mission for another 90 days.
This decision sends a clear message to the Gaddafi regime. We are determined to continue our operation to protect the people of Libya,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary-general, said.
“We will keep up the pressure to see it through,” Rasmussen added after the North Atlantic Council, the decision-making body of the 28-nation alliance, agreed to extend the mission.
The current military mandate expires on June 27.
Rasmussen added that the departure of Gaddafi was only a matter of time.
“The question is not if Gaddafi will go but when … It could take some time yet but it could also happen tomorrow.”
Wednesday’s decision will give individual nations time to prepare their contributions for the next 90 days, a NATO diplomat said.
Later on Wednesday, a car packed with explosives went off outside the Tebisty hotel in Benghazi, where foreign journalists and senior officials of the National Transitional Council (NTC), the main rebel administration in eastern Libya, are housed.
NTC members were holding a press conference there when the explosion occurred.
The explosion was the first act of violence in six weeks in the rebel stronghold. No immediate casualties were reported amid fears of a second device detonating.
The day’s events came a day after the Libyan government said that the air strikes had so far cost the lives of 718 civilians and wounded more than 4,000.
“Since March 19, and up to May 26, there have been 718 martyrs among civilians and 4,067 wounded – 433 of them seriously,” government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said, citing health ministry numbers.
Ibrahim said these figures do not include Libyan military casualties, a toll the defence ministry refuses to divulge.
In its latest operational update, NATO said its key hits included a vehicle storage facility and three surface-to-air missile launchers in Tripoli, among similar targets in Brega, Hun, Misurata, Mizdah and Zawiya.
Ibrahim also denied that South African President Jacob Zuma, who met Gaddafi in Tripoli on Monday, had discussed an “exit strategy” with him.
Zuma “never discussed any exit strategies as they have been described in the media,” the spokesman said.
Meanwhile, the United States said it had real concerns about weapons from Libya ending up in the hands of al-Qaeda.
“There is a very real concern for all the regional partners, and the United States shares this concern, about the proliferation of weapons from Libya to other places, including those under the control of al-Qaeda and others,” General Carter F Ham, commander of the US military’s Africa Command, told a news conference.
Libya’s neighbour Algeria has said it believes the chaos inside Libya, and the large quantities of weapons circulating there, is being exploited by al-Qaeda’s North African branch, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
A senior Algerian security source told the Reuters news agency that convoys of pick-up trucks carrying weapons had been crossing the border from Libya to Niger, and from there to northern Mali where AQIM has bases in the desert.
“To control this proliferation of weapons will require the co-operative efforts of all involved and I have been encouraged to note the meetings that have occurred between Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger,” Ham said.