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John McCain, in Libya, calls for more airstrikes and weapons aid for rebels

John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, urges U.S. recognition of the opposition leadership in Benghazi 'as the legitimate voice of the Libyan people.'

April 23, 2011|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), with a pre-Kadafi Libyan flag behind him, gestures during a news conference in the opposition stronghold of Benghazi.
U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), with a pre-Kadafi Libyan flag behind him,… (Nasser Nasser / Associated…)

Reporting from Benghazi, Libya — Sen. John McCain, on a visit to rebel-controlled eastern Libya on Friday, urged the United States and its allies to increase airstrikes and facilitate weapons deliveries to bolster the insurgent cause, a call for stepped-up intervention that clashes with the Obama administration's more cautious approach to the conflict.

McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, urged official U.S. recognition of the opposition leadership here "as the legitimate voice of the Libyan people."

"We [should] take out Kadafi's television station," he said, referring to the government channel broadcasting from Tripoli, the capital.

"Let's face it: This is not a fair fight," the Arizona senator said at a harbor-side hotel here after meeting with opposition leaders. "Those who are struggling for liberation are outgunned."

A military standoff currently prevails in Libya. Neither the rebels nor the loyalist forces have been able to advance significantly in recent days.

Western leaders have argued that airstrikes and other steps taken in Libya were in accordance with United Nations guidelines calling for the protection of Libyan civilians. But fearful of being drawn more deeply into a civil war, they have been hesitant to comply with repeated rebel requests for heavy weapons.

McCain reiterated his opposition to deploying any U.S. ground forces to assist the rebels trying to depose longtime Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi.

But he did urge the United States and other countries to help deliver more arms to the rebels. He cited the precedent of the 1980s war in Afghanistan, when Washington funneled weaponry through Pakistan to Islamist rebels fighting a Soviet-backed regime.

"Same thing we did in Afghanistan when they were fighting against the Russians," McCain said. "Weapons delivery can be facilitated."

In that conflict, the U.S. provided shoulder-fired Stinger missiles and other weaponry to the mujahedin fighting the Soviets.

McCain said he was not worried about Islamic extremism taking hold among the Libyan opposition, warning that allowing the current standoff to continue could incubate more extreme religious sentiment.

"If there is a stalemate here, it could open the door to radical Islamic fundamentalism, because of the frustration that thousands and thousands of young people will feel," McCain said.

In Misurata on Friday, rebel fighters consolidated control of a key building in a part of the western city that had been used by Kadafi fighters to terrorize the port community with mortars, rockets, cluster bombs and sniper fire.

The rebels occupied the Tamim Life Insurance building, which had been abandoned by Kadafi gunmen a day earlier. The building is located on Tripoli Street, the commercial boulevard that has become the city's main battleground. But Kadafi fighters continued to control a vegetable market and Misurata's old main hospital, while gunfire, artillery and rockets were fired throughout the day.

Residents began to leave the area around the Tamim building by midafternoon as it became clear there would be no respite from the heavy shelling.

McCain called on Washington to join a handful of nations, including France and Italy, that have recognized the rebel council in Benghazi as Libya's legitimate government. "All of them have long records of opposition to Kadafi," McCain said of the council members.

The names of most of the 31 Transitional National Council members are not publicly known — for "security reasons," the rebel leadership says. But several prominent members, including Mahmoud Jibril a U.S.-educated strategic planner, and Mustafa Abdul Jalil, a former justice minister, previously served in the Kadafi government.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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