CHIEFS or representatives of 61 tribes across Libya last night called for an end to Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship, in a statement released by French writer Bernard-Henri Levy.

“Faced with the threats weighing on the unity of our country, faced with the manoeuvres and propaganda of the dictator and his family, we solemnly declare nothing will divide us,” said the text, drawn up in Benghazi on April 12. “We share the same ideal of a free, democratic and united Libya.”

The tribal call came after British Defence Secretary Liam Fox said the rebels appeared to be gaining ground against Gaddafi, despite a deadly attack by government forces on the port of the besieged western city of Misratah.

The military spokesman in the rebels’ eastern stronghold of Benghazi said Gaddafi was determined to destroy Misratah’s port, a conduit for military and humanitarian supplies for the insurgents.

“This port is too much of a headache for Gaddafi so he wants to destroy it at whatever cost,” said Ahmed Omar Bani, military spokesman of the Transitional National Council.

Colonel Bani said revolutionaries on the ground were doing their best to save the port but it was an uphill battle as they were outgunned by the Gaddafi forces’ long-range weapons. “He is using missiles from 30-40km away, so it’s impossible for us to stop those missiles with the light weapons we have in Misratah.”

He said that hitting Gaddafi’s forces was a challenge even for NATO as the troops were using civilian areas in the outskirts — schools, shops and even farms — to hide troops and weapons.

“It is still hard for NATO to catch them. Gaddafi is staying far from the centre because it is safe for him,” Colonel Bani said, warning that losing the port would be a “real disaster”, leaving civilians stranded without aid.

He warned that Gaddafi could take revenge on the city that rose up against him on February 19, two days after Benghazi.  “This is the culture of Gaddafi: revenge, revenge. If this port fell, what will happen to civilians?”  Australia announced it had funded a passenger ship to evacuate 1000 civilians from Misratah.

Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said The Red Star 1, organised by the International Organisation for Migration, was moored off Misratah ready to deliver aid and allow civilians to escape the fighting.  The ship would dock in Misratah as soon as the security situation allowed, Mr Rudd said in a statement from Paris.

The African Union urged an end to military actions targeting senior Libyan officials and key infrastructure, after the US and Britain said it was legitimate to bomb Gaddafi’s home compound, as NATO did two days ago.

“Council urges all involved to refrain from actions, including military operations targeting Libyan senior officials and socio-economic infrastructure, that would compound the situation and make it more difficult to achieve international consensus on the best way forward,” the AU said.

But US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Mr Fox insisted command centres for the regime’s forces were legitimate targets.

Libya said it had asked Russia to convene an urgent meeting of the Security Council over what it called the “assassination attempt” on Gaddafi when the NATO raid destroyed his office on Sunday night.  NATO said it was considering sending a civilian “contact point” to Benghazi to improve political relations with the rebels.

US President Barack Obama ordered an immediate drawdown of $US25 million ($23m) in urgent non-lethal aid to the Transitional National Council in Benghazi.

Gaddafi forces fired Grad rockets at Misratah’s port, killing at least three people and forcing an aid ship that had been due to rescue 550 African refugees to stay out to sea.

At least three African refugees were killed, a medic and a Western journalist said. The medic spoke of “around 20 wounded”.

There were increasing fears Gaddafi could use suspected stocks of chemical weapons against the port city. Leaders in the city sent a professor of chemistry to the laboratories at the university, which was used as a military base during the occupation, to make sure a store of cyanide had not been taken.

“Even 100 milligrams would be enough to kill 20,000 people if he put it in the water supply,” said the professor, who asked not be named. But he had found the stock untouched and removed it for safekeeping.  “It’s a real threat,” said Hossein al-Fortiya, a member of Misratah’s rebel council. “If he’s crazy enough to send bombs against us he could put poison in the water. He could do anything.”

There were fears Gaddafi has stocks of nerve gas in the southern desert city of Sabha.  “If he has them he will use them,” said Khaled Abu Folgha, a director of Hikma hospital.  Witnesses in the northwestern town of Kabao reported insurgents fought against Gaddafi forces, leaving dozens of troops dead and many captured.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Gaddafi’s regime “has lost legitimacy and credibility, particularly in terms of protecting its people and addressing their legitimate aspirations for change”.

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