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CIA in Libya aiding rebels, news reports say

Libyan rebels flee Ras Lanouf after heavy shelling Wednesday as Gadhafi’s ground forces recaptured the strategic oil town.

Associated Press

Libyan rebels flee Ras Lanouf after heavy shelling Wednesday as Gadhafi’s ground forces recaptured the strategic oil town.

The CIA has inserted clandestine operatives into Libya to gather intelligence for military airstrikes and make contacts with rebels battling Moammar Gadhafi's forces, according to reports by the Washington Post, New York Times and other media sources.

While President Barack Obama has insisted that no U.S. ground troops will join in the Libyan campaign, small groups of CIA operatives have been working in Libya for several weeks and are part of a shadow force of Westerners that the Obama administration hopes can help set back Gadhafi's military, the New York Times reported, citing unnamed U.S. officials.

The CIA presence comprises an unknown number of U.S. officers who had worked at the spy agency's station in Tripoli and those who arrived more recently, according to the newspaper. In addition, dozens of British special forces and MI6 intelligence officers are inside Libya, the Times said, citing current and former British officials. The British operatives have been directing airstrikes from British jets and gathering intelligence about the whereabouts of Libyan government tank columns, artillery pieces and missile installations, the report said.

In Libya, in the face of a new onslaught by government troops, rebel forces fled eastward Wednesday from cities and towns they had captured just days ago. But Gadhafi suffered a political defeat with the defection to Britain of his foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, the most senior official thus far to break ranks.

Koussa quit to protest attacks on civilians by government forces, news agencies reported, citing an account from an associate. Koussa served as chief of Gadhafi's intelligence apparatus from 1994 until 2009, when he was appointed foreign minister.

According to the London Daily Mail, Libyan exile groups branded Koussa "the envoy of death'' for his role in the 1980s directing terrorist atrocities across Europe and organizing the murder of exiled opponents of the Gadhafi regime. He was later labeled "the father of Lockerbie'' for masterminding the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988, the Daily Mail said.

In Washington, congressional Republicans and Democrats peppered senior administration officials with questions about how long the United States will be involved in Libya, the costs of the operation and whether foreign countries will arm the rebels.

NATO is in the process of taking over control of the airstrikes, which began as a U.S.-led operation. Diplomats said they have given approval for the commander of the NATO operation, Canadian Gen. Charles Bouchard, to announce a handover today.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports, Gadhafi's forces have adopted a new tactic in light of the pounding airstrikes have given their tanks and armored vehicles. They've left some of those weapons behind in favor of a "gaggle" of "battle wagons": minivans, sedans and SUVs fitted with weapons, the Associated Press said, citing a senior U.S. intelligence official. Rebel fighters also said Gadhafi's troops were increasingly using civilian vehicles in battle.

Government forces have pushed rebels back about 100 miles in just two days. The rebels had been closing in on the strategic city of Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown, but under heavy shelling they retreated from Bin Jawwad on Tuesday and from the oil port of Ras Lanouf on Wednesday.

Gadhafi's forces were shelling Brega, another important oil city east of Ras Lanouf. East of the city in Ajdabiya, where many rebels had regrouped, Col. Abdullah Hadi said he expected the loyalists to enter Brega by Wednesday night.

"I ask NATO for just one aircraft to push them back. All we need is air cover and we could do this. They should be helping us," Hadi said.

As Gadhafi's forces push rebels toward Benghazi, some 140 miles northeast of Brega, pressure is growing for NATO members and other supporters of the air campaign to do more.

Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain believes a legal loophole could allow nations to supply weapons to Libya's rebels — but stressed the U.K. has not decided whether it will offer assistance to the rebels.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday that Washington also believes it would be legal to give the rebels weapons. Asked whether the U.S. would do so, President Obama told NBC, "I'm not ruling it out, but I'm also not ruling it in."

In Gadhafi-controlled western Libya, government officials took journalists to meet the relatives of a boy who appeared to be the first confirmed civilian death in the 12-day-old air war, in a village on the edge of Gharyan, a town about 60 miles south of Tripoli.

The Washington Post reported that according to family members, a coalition warplane struck an ammunition depot about 3 miles away on Tuesday, igniting a blaze that triggered a rocket that crashed into the home of 18-month-old Serajadin al-Suwaissi. The rocket only partlly exploded, but a piece of burning shrapnel struck the boy's head as he slept on the couch, and he died in a hospital about 12 hours later, the relatives said.

"I am feeling angry about the airstrikes. This isn't civilian protection at all," said the boy's uncle, Abdel Hakim al-Suwaissi, as somber women gathered in the home to pay condolences.

The French Defense Ministry said Wednesday that its planes carried out a strike Monday night against "a munitions depot in the region of Gharyan."

Meanwhile, Gadhafi has sent more troops to the besieged cities of Misrata and Zintan, opposition spokesman Mustafa Gheriani said.

Misrata was relatively quiet for much of the day Wednesday, and a ship docked carrying food, medicine and 11 European journalists, who spent the day with rebels in the city, according to a doctor at Misrata's hospital. But shortly after the ship left at nightfall, government forces that have been laying siege to the city for the past five weeks resumed shelling the port area.

CIA in Libya aiding rebels, news reports say 03/30/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 31, 2011 12:22am]
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