MISRATA: Time is running out for Libyan leader Moamer Qaddafi, NATO Chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, even as the strongman’s forces laying siege to Misrata intensified their assault on the lifeline port.
"The game is over for Qaddafi. He should realize sooner rather than later that there’s no future for him or his regime," the NATO secretary-general told CNN’s "State of the Union" program late Sunday.
"We have stopped Qaddafi in his tracks. His time is running out. He’s more and more isolated," Rasmussen said.
Given the "wind of change" sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East, the death of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the growing pressure on the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Danish former prime minister said he was "very optimistic" that Qaddafi would ultimately lose his decades-old grip on power.
NATO forces have kept up an air bombing campaign against Libyan military targets since March, but have failed so far to prevent Qaddafi from killing scores of his own people in rebel-held towns and cities — the stated goal of a UN resolution authorizing the allied mission.
"First of all, we have to realize that there is no military solution. We will need a political solution" to break the stalemate, said Rasmussen.
But he also recognized it was "hard to imagine the attacks, the outrageous and systematic attacks against Libyan people, will stop as long as Qaddafi remains in power."
Fighting has been raging near in Misrata, a make-or-break city in the Libyan conflict lying about 200 kilometers (125 miles) east of the capital which has been besieged by Qaddafi’s forces for weeks.
A thick plume of smoke spread on Sunday over the city, the main source of supplies to rebels fighting to oust the veteran strongman in western Libya, from blazing fuel depots bombed a day earlier. Long queues formed at fuel stations amid fears of shortages.
Forces loyal to Qaddafi "destroyed the only tanks that were full," said Ahmad Monthasser, a rebel from Misrata.
Rebels warned that residents of Misrata could run out of food and water within a month if they are not provided with "game-changing" weapons to defeat Qaddafi’s forces.
Because of shelling of the city’s port over the past two weeks, only one aid ship a week is now reaching Misrata, which is circled by the Libyan strongman’s troops, said a spokesman in the eastern rebel bastion of Benghazi.
Misrata is seen as key to the Libyan conflict, which broke out in mid-February after Qaddafi’s security forces waged a bloody crackdown on protests inspired by regime-changing movements in Tunisia and Egypt.
Italian coast guards and local fisherman, meanwhile, saved all 528 refugees on a boat from Libya after their vessel hit rocks off the island of Lampedusa in an operation a rescuer described as a "miracle." Among the refugees who had thrown themselves into the water at night were 24 pregnant women.
But the survivors said they saw another boat laden with fellow refugees capsize just off Libyan shores and "many bodies" were in the water, Italian news agency ANSA reported.
"It was terrible. There were a lot of corpses," said a refugee, whose name was not quoted in the report, which said "dozens of dozens" of people had likely died.
Rebels have feared for days that Qaddafi’s forces will mount a new ground assault on the city.
On Friday, Qaddafi’s forces dropped mines into Misrata’s harbor using small helicopters bearing the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems, the rebels said.
Amnesty International’s senior adviser Donatella Rovera lashed out at the Qaddafi regime, saying the mines do not "distinguish between civilian and military vehicles."
"Such systematic targeting of Misrata’s only conduit for humanitarian supplies and for the evacuation of critically ill and wounded patients is nothing short of collective punishment against the city’s population," she said.
Abdul Hafiz Ghoga, vice-chairman of the opposition National Transitional Council said pointed to Qaddafi’s growing desperation behind such "firepower on the people" following economic and political pressure from world powers.
World powers have promised $250 million (175 million euros) in humanitarian aid to the rebels and said the Qaddafi regime’s frozen overseas assets, estimated at $60 billion, would be used later to assist the Libyan opposition.
The economic situation in rebel-held areas, including Benghazi, is steadily worsening, with costs of basic commodities skyrocketing and the rebel administration facing shortage of funds as receipts from oil exports have come to a virtual halt.
In neighbouring Egypt, the foreign ministry said Cairo has imposed visa
restrictions on Libyans, in a move that will restrict the numbers trying to escape the conflict.