BRITAIN was to hold urgent talks with the UN last night about the “dire” and worsening humanitarian situation in Libya, as Prime Minister David Cameron insisted it would not send ground forces into Libya despite reports of hundreds of civilians being killed in the country’s third-largest city, Misratah.
“What we have said is there is no question of an invasion or an occupation,” Mr Cameron said.
“This is not about Britain putting boots on the ground; this is not what we are about here.”
He said international forces would not go beyond the terms set by UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorises all necessary means to protect civilians in Libya but rules out a foreign occupation force.
However, Mr Cameron’s statement was seized upon by Menzies Campbell, the former Liberal Democrat leader, who said the Prime Minister had opened up the possibility of British ground forces operating in Libya.
“The Prime Minister’s words need careful interpretation. ‘Occupation’ necessarily implies large numbers of troops being in Libya for a substantial period of time,” he said.
“The PM’s answer could imply military assistance or support at a much lower level, designed to stiffen the resolve and improve the quality of the rebel effort.”
According to the British government, tens of thousands of civilians, who have been trapped in towns in western Libya for more than five weeks, are running out of food and water. Electricity supplies have been cut, which is disrupting hospitals that are also short of medical supplies and staff.
A doctor in Misratah said yesterday 1000 people had been killed and 3000 injured since Muammar Gaddafi’s forces began attacking it with shells and sniper fire six weeks ago.
“About 80 per cent of the deaths are civilians,” Khaled Abu Falgha, the administrator of the city’s main hospital, said.
The UN is worried that consumption of untreated water from wells could lead to outbreaks of disease, and UNICEF has warned that tens of thousands of children are at risk.
At least 20 children have been killed and many more injured by shrapnel from mortars and tanks. Nearly 500,000 people have fled the country.
Andrew Mitchell, Britain’s International Development Secretary, was to travel to New York for an urgent meeting of the UN to discuss what could be done to relieve the suffering.
“The humanitarian situation in Misratah is of great concern,” Mr Mitchell said.
A chartered Greek ferry containing 500 tonnes of medical and food supplies, four ambulances and three doctors docked in Misratah yesterday as part of an international refugee rescue operation.
After unloading its cargo, the ferry was to take on 1000-plus refugees packed around the port.
On Friday, pro-Gaddafi forces unleashed a barrage of rockets on the region of Qasr Ahmed, killing up to 32 people, including many waiting outside a bakery, and preventing several humanitarian ships from docking in Misratah.
A military spokesman in Tripoli denied the use of artillery and rockets in the attack, despite evidence indicating otherwise.
The spokesman also dismissed a report by Human Rights Watch on Saturday, corroborated by researchers and witnesses on the ground, that pro-Gaddafi forces have used globally banned cluster bombs in Misratah.
Major General Saleh Abdullah Ibrahim told reporters in Tripoli that such munitions were either used by the rebels themselves or brought by a third party into Misratah to besmirch the regime.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, also dismissed claims by the UN, doctors, foreign journalists and others that civilians were targeted and killed in Misratah.
“I am not going to accept it, that the Libyan army killed civilians. This didn’t happen. It will never happen,” he said.
He likened the reports to claims that pre-war Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction.
“It’s exactly like the WMD,” he said. “WMD, WMD, WMD, go and attack Iraq. Civilians, civilians, civilians, go and attack Libya. It’s the same thing.”
Amid the bloodshed in Misratah, Valerie Amos, the UN’s undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, travelled to Tripoli with other UN officials yesterday to press senior Libyan representatives for an immediate ceasefire and for UN access to conflict zones.
Baroness Amos warned of a looming “massive” humanitarian crisis if the fighting continued.
Elsewhere, regime forces bombarded rebels west of Ajdabiya, forcing hundreds of residents and some fighters to flee the key crossroads town.
It came a day after at least eight people were killed there by pro-Gaddafi forces.