A Libyan government vessel in the port of Al Khums is hit by British jets carrying… (Reuters )
Reporting from Tripoli, Libya — A series of NATO airstrikes on Libyan government vessels left ships burned, battered and sunk in three ports Friday as the alliance sought to degrade the ability of Moammar Kadafi's regime to attack from the sea.
The strikes came after alliance forces in recent weeks observed Libyan vessels threatening NATO ships and carrying out "indiscriminate mining" in sea lanes off the rebel-held city of Misurata, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said.
In Tripoli, foreign journalists were taken to the sprawling port area, where at least five vessels had been hit, including one that was sunk in the harbor and several that were scorched from fires. The strikes blew apart gun turrets, tore gaping holes in hulls and collapsed decks, sending debris and shrapnel across the docks.
In each case, the NATO missiles or bombs appeared to hit their targets directly. Among the vessels struck was a navy frigate berthed between two commercial container vessels; neither container ship appeared to have been damaged. The frigate was ablaze in the harbor early Friday.
Libyan authorities denounced the strikes and said four of the five vessels were coast guard boats that hadn't left the port since March, when NATO began its bombing campaign. None were involved in hostile activity against the alliance, said Commandant Omran Forjani of the Libyan coast guard. The frigate had also been in port since March, officials said.
NATO said all eight boats hit in the three ports were warships.
NATO attacks and fear of such strikes have made it impossible for the Libyan coast guard to rescue migrants, assist stranded fishing boats and perform other humanitarian tasks, the commandant told reporters. Scores of migrants are believed to have drowned in recent weeks after boarding rickety ships in Libya bound for Europe.
The NATO attacks have also severely reduced shipments of food and other cargo to Libya as shippers fear bringing their vessels to the ports, said Mohammed Rashid, the port general manager. He said fewer than 10 container ships had arrived in the Tripoli port during the last two months, compared with as many as five a day before the Western-led bombing campaign.
Authorities said there were no casualties from the strikes on Tripoli's port, but it was not known whether anyone was injured or killed in overnight attacks on two other port cities, Surt, a Kadafi stronghold 225 miles east of the capital, and Al Khums, situated between Tripoli and Misurata.
NATO said that in Al Khums, it also destroyed a dockyard facility used to construct the kind of fast, inflatable boats that have tried to mine the approaches to the harbor in Misurata, a strategic city where the opposition has ousted Kadafi's troops.
NATO ships are blanketing Libya's 1,200-mile-long Mediterranean coast, enforcing an arms embargo and, the alliance says, fulfilling a United Nations mandate to protect civilians. On Friday, NATO confirmed that its forces turned back a tanker, the Jupiter, that was bringing fuel to Tripoli. A NATO official said authorities suspected the fuel could be used for military purposes.
Libya has alleged that NATO is choking off fuel supplies in an effort to destabilize the regime. The country, one of Africa's major oil producers, is suffering a severe shortage of gasoline, which is mostly imported. Motorists must line up, sometimes for days, to fill their tanks.
The Libyan government alleges that NATO has exceeded its mandate and is now targeting Kadafi and using its forces to oust the regime, an allegation denied by the alliance.