PRESIDENT Barack Obama has approved the use of armed Predator drone aircraft to launch airstrikes against ground targets in Libya, the latest sign of mounting concern in Washington that the NATO-led air campaign has failed to stop Muammar Gaddafi’s forces from shelling the besieged city of Misratah and other populated areas.
Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who announced the decision yesterday, said Predators armed with Hellfire missiles would be used to augment airstrikes by warplanes from NATO nations against the intensifying attacks by forces loyal to Gaddafi.
The decision marks a resumption of a direct combat role for US aircraft in Libya and marks a shift for the White House.
It follows decisions by France, Italy and Britain earlier this week to send military advisers to assist the poorly armed, inexperienced and disorganised rebel force based in eastern Libya.
The first Predator mission was launched on Thursday, but the pilotless plane was forced to turn back because of poor weather conditions, said General James Cartwright, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
He said two drones would fly 24 hours a day and focus initially on targets around Misratah, Libya’s third-largest city and the focal point of resistance in western Libya, where the outgunned and outnumbered opposition forces have held out against relentless attacks by Gaddafi’s forces.
The decision to use drones came as rebels in Misratah cleared dozens of snipers from tall buildings in hours of urban warfare, gaining a tactical advantage in the only major city held by the opposition in western Libya, witnesses said.
Elsewhere, rebels captured a Libyan border crossing into Tunisia, forcing government soldiers to flee over the frontier and possibly opening a new channel for opposition forces in Gaddafi’s bastion in the country’s west.
At least seven people died in Friday’s fighting for the main Misratah thoroughfare of Tripoli Street, bringing to 20 the number slain in the city in three days.
Dr Gates denied that the decision to deploy the Predators indicated US forces were being drawn deeper into a conflict that increasingly appears to be a military stalemate, cutting the country in two.
“I don’t think that any of us see this as mission creep,” he said, calling the Predators a “modest contribution” to the NATO-led effort.
The Obama administration will give the rebels $US25 million ($23.2m) in vehicles and other supplies from excess military stocks, but has ruled out sending weapons and other lethal aid for now. Administration officials remain concerned about giving weapons to such a disorganised group, about which little is known.
The Pentagon initially led the international air campaign to protect civilians from Gaddafi’s army, but after NATO was given command two weeks ago, Mr Obama said the US military role would be limited to providing surveillance, refuelling and other non-combat support operations.
That strategy left NATO without low-flying US aircraft capable of carrying out precision strikes in urban areas – a mission the Predators, armed with Hellfire missiles and live-video surveillance cameras, are designed to do.
In Tripoli, government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim warned that NATO would find itself fighting ordinary Libyans if its soldiers were to set foot on Libyan soil.
“We are arming the whole population, not to fight the rebels, by the way, because the rebels are very easy – they are not a challenge for us,” he said. “What we are fighting is NATO now.”
Mr Ibrahim said the regime was ready to observe an immediate ceasefire and negotiate the terms of political transition. Rebels have said Gaddafi must step down before such talks could begin.
“We are ready and accepting peace . . . but we are also ready for war,” Mr Ibrahim said. “If NATO comes, it will be hell.”