NATO pounded Tripoli yesterday hours after Britain’s top diplomat met rebel chiefs in Libya and Russia voiced concerns the alliance’s military operation was sliding toward a land campaign.
Warplanes launched intensive air raids on the Libyan capital and its eastern suburbs, where several explosions were heard, as NATO kept up its pressure on Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
British Foreign Minister William Hague on Saturday met leaders of rebels who have been fighting to oust Qaddafi after NATO deployed attack helicopters for the first time.
“We are here today for one principal reason — to show our support for the Libyan people and for the National Transitional Council, the legitimate representative of the Libyan people,” Hague said in a statement.
Hague, accompanied by -British International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell, held talks with the head of the rebel National Transitional Council Mustafa al-Jalil.
He also toured Benghazi’s landmark seafront as well as a medical center treating war wounded.
“Qaddafi should leave immediately,” Hague said.
He told reporters Britain would also support demining efforts in Misrata, the main rebel-held city in western Libya, and deliver “more equipment, uniforms, bullet-proof jackets” to rebel fighters.
“We have no combat troops in Libya,” he added.
However, Britain, he said, would stand with the Libyan people “for as long as it takes.”
“We could not and did not turn a blind eye when Qaddafi turned his forces against innocent civilians. For as long as Qaddafi continues to abuse his people, we will continue and intensify our efforts to stop him,” Hague said.
Hours after Hague’s trip to the rebel capital, a series of NATO air strikes targeted Tripoli.
Four blasts shook Tripoli at around 2:30am yesterday after two powerful, but distant explosions were felt in the center of the capital at about 6:30pm on Saturday, followed by several others within a few minutes.
Witnesses said the explosions came from Tajura, a suburb that has often been targeted by NATO since an international coalition began military operations against Libya on March 31 to stop Qaddafi attacking civilians.
On Saturday, Britain and France said they deployed attack helicopters against Qaddafi’s forces for the first time as part the NATO campaign to protect civilians in line with a UN resolution that barred ground troops.
Britain’s defense ministry said Apaches on Friday night attacked a radar station and a checkpoint operated by Qaddafi’s forces in the strategic oil town of Brega in eastern Libya.
A spokesman for France’s military chiefs, Thierry Brukhard, said the copters destroyed about 20 targets and drew light arms fire from forces on the ground, but were not damaged.
Moscow, which is calling for a negotiated solution to the conflict, expressed alarm as the NATO campaign entered a new phase.
“We consider that what is going on is either consciously or unconsciously sliding towards a land operation,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
“That would be very deplorable,” Lavrov, quoted by the RIA Novosti news agency, added in reference to France and Britain’s decision to deploy military helicopters in the Libya conflict.