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Pressure piles on Gaddafi

world Updated: May 18, 2011 07:44 IST

AFP
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Pressure is piling on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi after an apparent defection from his oil minister, a rebuke from Moscow, NATO air strikes on Tripoli and a leading prosecutor sought his arrest.

A Tunisian government official told AFP that oil minister Shukri Ghanem, a veteran of Gaddafi's regime, had left Libya and was in neighbouring Tunisia.

Ghanem, also chairman of Libya's national oil company, crossed the border by car on Saturday and checked into a hotel on the southern tourist island of Djerba, the official said.

The hotel said he had left with his family early on Tuesday for an unknown destination.

If the defection is confirmed, Ghanem would be among the most senior officials to abandon Gaddafi's government since an uprising erupted in mid-February.

In Moscow, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said he held talks with Gaddafi envoys and had told Tripoli to obey the terms of UN resolutions on Libya.

The visit to Moscow by Muhammad Ahmed al-Sharif, general secretary of the World Islamic Call Society, the Libya-based group founded by Gaddafi, comes as Russia is preparing to meet with rebels fighting the regime.

"We raised the issues that directly come out of our principal position aimed first and foremost at urgently ending bloodletting in Libya," Lavrov said after talks with Sharif.

"We raised an issue about the need for the Libyan leadership to explicitly embrace and begin the implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions in full" that call for a cessation of violence against civilians, he continued.

Lavrov said the envoy told Moscow that Tripoli was ready to cooperate if rebels and NATO ceased hostilities. "The answer that we heard could not be called negative," he said.

Moscow, which has been strongly critical of the international campaign against Gaddafi's regime, had agreed to talk to both Tripoli envoys and rebels who had also planned to come to Moscow but had to delay their trip.

The rebels, meanwhile, ruled out any three-way talks involving the regime.

Meanwhile, French defence minister Gerard Longuet said in comments made public on Tuesday that the NATO-led bombardments had "wiped out" Gaddafi's warplanes and heavily depleted his army.

On Monday night, air strikes by NATO set fire to two buildings near Gaddafi's compound in Tripoli, according to an AFP reporter who was taken to the site along with other reporters.

Parts of Tripoli have been targeted almost daily by NATO-led strikes that began on March 19 after a UN resolution mandated a no-fly zone and called for the protection of civilians from Gaddafi's regime.

Britain, one of the main powers enforcing the no-fly zone, confirmed attacks overnight in Tripoli by Tomahawk missiles and Royal Air Force Tornado aircraft, which it said struck intelligence agency buildings and a military training base.

Regime officials said the targets were a security services building and the headquarters of Libya's anti-corruption agency.

Britain said one of the facilities hit served as "headquarters for the External Security Organisation, commanded by Abdullah Senussi."

Senussi, Libya's intelligence chief, Gaddafi and the strongman's son, Seif al-Islam, have been accused by International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo of committing crimes against humanity in suppressing anti-regime protests that erupted on February 15.

Moreno-Ocampo is asking the court to issue warrants against the three, saying there was evidence "that Moamer Gaddafi personally ordered attacks on innocent Libyan civilians."

A panel of judges will now decide whether to accept the application.

Moreno-Ocampo said thousands of people had been killed and around 750,000 people forced to flee since Gaddafi ordered his forces to crush the protests against his four-decade autocratic rule.

The rebels hailed the ICC move but said Gaddafi ought to be tried in Libya first, while the Libyan regime said the court's prosecutor was acting on "incoherent" information.

NATO said it has stepped up a psychological operation to pressure Gaddafi's troops to surrender their arms and return home by broadcasting radio messages and air-dropping leaflets.

The messages also encourage loyalist troops and civilians to stay away from military installations being targeted for air strikes, said Wing Commander Mike Bracken.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said about 14,000 people have fled to Italy or Malta by boat from Libya since the outbreak of the conflict and thousands more are planning to do the same.

Meanwhile, Paris said a French diplomat met over the weekend with four Frenchmen who were arrested in the rebel stronghold Benghazi and accused of spying for Gaddafi.

A fifth Frenchman, ex-paratrooper Pierre Marziali, was shot dead when the rebels intercepted the group on Friday.

Marziali was the founder of a private security firm that had opened an office in Benghazi and his four companions worked for the firm.

The rebels accused the five of staying in Benghazi to sabotage the anti-Gaddafi revolt.

In Canada, the government announced it has decided to expel five Libyan diplomats for actions it called "inappropriate."

"The activities carried out in Canada by the five Libyan diplomats are considered inappropriate and inconsistent with normal diplomatic functions," a foreign ministry statement said.

And the Tunisian government submitted a protest to Libya over shelling on its soil and threatened to report the matter to the United Nations, a source close to the foreign ministry said.