LIBYAN leader Muammar Gaddafi, increasingly cornered by a stunning upturn in NATO airstrikes, lashed back with renewed shelling on the outskirts of the western city of Misratah yesterday, killing 10 rebel fighters.

The international alliance said it remained determined to keep pounding Gaddafi forces from the air, but would play no military role in the transition to democratic rule in the oil-rich North African country once the erratic leader’s 42-year rule ended.

In Brussels, NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Gaddafi’s days in power were clearly numbered, making it imperative for the international community, the UN in particular, to gear up to help Libyans establish a new form of government.

“For Gaddafi, it is no longer a question of if he goes but when he goes,” Mr Fogh Rasmussen said at a meeting of the defence ministers from the 28 NATO members.

“We do not see a lead role for NATO in Libya once this crisis is over. We see the United Nations playing a lead role in the post-Gaddafi, post-conflict scenario.”

The alliance said it was acting in the skies over Libya purely in accordance with the UN mandate to protect the Libyan people from Gaddafi. The resolution did not include any involvement in post-conflict peacekeeping.

French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said: “NATO has a military vocation and rebuilding Libya is a civilian issue. So, really simply, in order to rebuild Libya, if the Libyan people ask for it, because it is first of all an issue for the Libyan people, it is the job for civilian international institutions, and not military, to bring a response.”

The Libyan rebels have made it clear they have no appetite to see alliance ground forces in the country once the conflict is finished. But they remain grateful for NATO intervention and applauded the stepped-up alliance bombing campaign, a record 66 strike sorties over Tripoli and environs on Tuesday.

“We’ve always felt that relentless, continuous strikes would hasten the departure of (Gaddafi) or at least the circle around him,” said rebel spokesman Jalal el-Gallal in Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital. “We’re very glad that (NATO) is carrying out the actions, and it is a matter of time.”

But NATO’s campaign has strained the alliance, which was evident yesterday when US officials said Defence Secretary Robert Gates prodded five allied nations to share more of the burden. None committed to do more.

The officials said Dr Gates used his final NATO meeting before retirement to press Germany and Poland to join the intervention, and Spain, Turkey and The Netherlands to contribute to strike missions against ground targets.

Misratah has seen some of the fiercest fighting in the four-month uprising, which has divided Libya into zones controlled by Gaddafi and those by rebels.

Doctor Khalid Abufalgha of Misratah’s Hikma hospital said government forces attacked the city from three sides yesterday, but rebel fighters kept them out. Gaddafi’s forces then shelled the city’s outlying districts, killing 10 and wounding 24, he said.

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