UN appeals for Libya ceasefire

 

The United Nations has appealed for a ceasefire in the Libyan city of Misrata, saying at least 20 children had been killed in attacks by besieging government forces on rebel-held parts of the city.

Libya's third city, where hundreds are believed to have been killed by shelling and sniper fire from Muammar Gadafy's forces, is the main focus of efforts to protect civilians caught up in the Libyan leader's bid to put down an armed rebellion.

"Fifty days into the fighting in Misrata, the full picture of the toll on children is emerging - far worse than we had feared and certain to get worse unless there is a ceasefire," said Marixie Mercado, spokeswoman for the UN children's fund

"We have at least 20 verified child deaths and many more injuries due to shrapnel from mortars and tanks and bullet wounds," she told a news briefing in Geneva.

Britain said this evening it was sending military officers to advise Libyan rebels, worrying critics who fear the country is being dragged into a civil war.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was sending around a dozen officers to Libya to help insurgents improve their organisation and communications, but would not arm the rebels or train them to fight.

With the Libyan conflict risking getting bogged down in a long stalemate, Western powers are searching for ways to bolster the rebels, whose fighting efforts have been disorganised.

Mr Hague said the decision to send military advisers was in line with a United Nations' resolution aimed at protecting civilians in Libya and denied Britain was putting military "boots on the ground".

"There is going to be no ground invasion of Libya," Hague told the BBC. The UN resolution bars an occupation force in Libya.

Britain's move is likely to anger Russia, which has already said that Western attempts to topple Libyan leader Muammar Gadafy violate a UN resolution which only authorised the use of force to protect civilians.

"The UN Security Council never aimed to topple the Libyan regime," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Belgrade today.

Meanwhile aid groups say food, medicines and other basic items are in short supply in the city, and tens of thousands of casualties and foreign workers are waiting at the port to be evacuated.

Nine weeks after the rebellion broke out, inspired by uprisings against autocratic rulers elsewhere in the Arab world, the city's plight has highlighted the limitations of a Nato-led air campaign designed to keep Gadafy's forces out of the air and prevent attacks on civilians.

Many Nato members refuse to go beyond enforcing a UN-mandated no-fly zone to attack Gadafy's forces, despite the urging of the United States, France and Britain, who all want to see Gadafy removed from power.

And some of those who allowed a UN Security Council resolution on Libya to pass say that it is being misused to provide military cover for the rebels - even though fighting now appears to have stalemated on a frontline just west of Ajdabiyah in eastern Libya.

Nato said multiple air strikes last night had targeted Gadafy's communications infrastructure and the headquarters of his 32nd brigade, 10 km south of Tripoli.

Libyan television said Tripoli and the towns of Sirte and al-Aziziyah had been bombed.

At Ajdabiyah's western gate, rebels peered into the desert through binoculars this morning at what they said were Gadafy's forces 30 km away.

Some said that Nato had advised them not to attack so they would not be hit accidentally by air strikes.

France said President Nicolas Sarkozy would meet the head of Libya's rebel opposition, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, in Paris tomorrow, but its foreign minister, Alain Juppe, said that France, like Britain, remained opposed to sending ground troops.

However, the European Union outlined a tentative plan yesterday to do just that, albeit with a non-combat mandate, to protect aid deliveries to Misrata and elsewhere if requested by the United Nations.

Any EU mission could involve hundreds of military personnel securing transport of supplies directly to Libya, in particular Misrata, and helping to supply food and shelter to refugee camps on the Tunisian and Egyptian borders.

The UN World Food Programme said it had secured Libyan consent to bring food to western towns affected by the fighting.

Eight trucks entered from Tunisia carrying 240 tonnes of food - enough to feed nearly 50,000 people for 30 days - to towns in the west including Zawiyah, Zintan and Nalut that are mostly under Gadafy's control after uprisings there were crushed by force.

Agencies