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Wed 11 May 2011 12:45 PM

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EU to open Benghazi office to back Libya rebels

Rebels surround Gaddafi forces at Misrata's airport; NATO warplanes hit sites in Tripoli area

EU to open Benghazi office to back Libya rebels
(Getty Images)
EU to open Benghazi office to back Libya rebels
EU to open Benghazi office to back Libya rebels
EU to open Benghazi office to back Libya rebels
EU to open Benghazi office to back Libya rebels

The European Union plans to open an office in the rebel-held
Libyan city of Benghazi to facilitate assistance to the rebel council based
there, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said on Wednesday.

"I intend to open an office in Benghazi so that we can
move forward on the support we've discussed to the people... to support civil
society, to support the Interim Transitional National Council," Ashton
told the European Parliament, meeting in Strasbourg.

Ashton said EU support would include help for security sector
reform and institution-building.

"We want to help with education, with health care, with
security on the borders," she said.

Ashton reiterated an EU call for Libyan leader Muammar
Gaddafi to step down.

"Let us ... be clear, Gaddafi must go from power - he
must end his regime."

Meanwhile, Libyan rebels said they had made gains by driving
back Muammar Gaddafi's troops on the eastern and western edges of the port city
of Misrata and encircling them at the airport.

The rebels also said on Tuesday they had taken the town of
Zareek, about 25 km (15 miles) west of Misrata, but no independent verification
of the rebel statements was available.

Misrata, besieged by Gaddafi's forces for eight weeks, is
strategically important to rebel hopes of overthrowing the Libyan leader
because it is the only city they hold in the west of the North African country.

NATO launched missile strikes on Tuesday in the Tripoli area
on targets that appeared to include Gaddafi's compound, witnesses said. NATO
said later it carried out a strike against a government command and control
post in the capital.

After three months of revolt linked to this year's uprisings
in other Arab countries, the war has reached a stalemate. Rebels hold Benghazi
and other towns in the oil-producing east while the government controls the
capital and almost all of the west.

Thousands have been killed in the fighting in the vast
country, which has a population of more than six million.

The government says the rebels are armed criminals and al
Qaeda militants and that the majority of Libyans support Gaddafi, who has been
in power since 1969.

He has not appeared in public since April 30, when a NATO
air strike on a house in the capital killed his youngest son and three of his

The rebels, battling against Gaddafi's superior firepower,
said government forces bombarded a residential area outside the Misrata on
Tuesday and that 100 rebel fighters were wounded in a separate shelling attack.

Rebels had surrounded Gaddafi's forces at the airport and an
air force academy near the southern neighbourhood of al Ghiran where the two
sides fought fierce battles on Monday, a witness and a rebel spokesman said.

"The plan is to drive out Gaddafi's forces from the
airport and the air force academy where they are now trapped," rebel
spokesman Abdelsalam said by phone from Misrata.

"We continue to have success but our weakness is that
we can't hold on to areas we take control of," said Abdelsalam.

The proximity of Gaddafi's forces to civilian areas made it
hard for NATO to carry out its mandate of protecting civilians,
Brigadier-General Claudio Gabellini, chief operations officer of NATO's Libya
mission, told reporters in Brussels.

He said NATO had still managed to destroy more than 30
military targets in Misrata since April 29.

"Pro-Gaddafi forces have continued to shell the
citizens of Misrata with long-range artillery, mortars and rockets,
indiscriminately firing high explosive rounds into the city," said

The Libyan government says NATO's intervention is an act of
colonial aggression by Western powers bent on stealing the country's oil. The
war has caused misery for tens of thousands forced to flee overland or by boat.

Aid agencies say witnesses reported a vessel carrying
between 500 and 600 people foundered late last week near Tripoli and that many
bodies were seen in the water.

Before that, about 800 people had gone missing since March
25 after trying to escape from Libya, according to the UN High Commissioner for
Refugees. Most were from sub-Saharan Africa.

Libyan officials said on Tuesday four children had been
wounded, two of them seriously, by flying glass caused by blasts from NATO
strikes overnight.

Officials showed foreign journalists a hospital in the
capital where some windows were shattered, apparently by blast waves from a
NATO strike that toppled a nearby telecommunications tower.

The journalists were also taken to a government building
housing the high commission for children, which had been completely destroyed.
The old colonial building had been damaged before, in what officials said was a
NATO bombing on April 30.

"The direction of at least one blast suggests Gaddafi's
compound has been targeted," said one witness.

Libyan officials said the government released 120 rebel
prisoners on Tuesday. A reporter in Tripoli saw the men rejoining their
families at a government-organised event.


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