TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) Ã¢â‚¬â€ A senior Libyan official Thursday accused NATO of intensifying its bombing campaign and backing foreign mercenaries to lay the groundwork for an advance by rebels trying to topple Moammar Gadhafi’s regime.
Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim told The Associated Press in an early morning interview that the alliance’s increased bombings represent the “final phase” of the air campaign. But he said the push will fail and that civilians will be the ones to pay the price.
Kaim said NATO targeted police checkpoints in the Nafusa mountains southwest of Tripoli ahead of a rebel advance toward the village of Qawalish, which rebel fighters claimed they seized Wednesday. They were later pushed back by government troops, he said.
A fuel depot in the key eastern oil town of Brega was also destroyed, Kaim said. NATO said it hit equipment used to refuel government military vehicles.
The intensified campaign, he said, is focused on targeting civilian infrastructure and police checkpoints, and providing additional weapons to rebel fighters.
“The aim of these attacks is to help the rebels to advance. But I assure you, it will be another failure for them,” he said.
Kaim also said Libyan forces have evidence that Colombian mercenaries funded by the West and its Arab allies have joined the rebel fighters trying to advance toward the capital Tripoli from the western rebel-held city of Misrata.
Some of the Colombian fighters had been killed in clashes near Misrata on Wednesday, he said. While Kaim was not immediately able to provide evidence to substantiate the allegation, he said it would soon be shown to journalists based in Tripoli.
NATO began airstrikes against Libya in March. The coalition and its Arab allies are operating under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians.
Some countries in the coalition have interpreted that mandate broadly, with France acknowledging it has provided weapons to rebels operating in the mountains and other countries providing non-lethal aid to rebel-held areas.
Libyan officials earlier this week showed journalists assault rifles and ammunition they claimed had been shipped to rebels by the wealthy Gulf Arab state of Qatar.
Rebel forces took heavy losses in the fighting outside Misrata Wednesday as Gadhafi’s soldiers fired more than 500 rockets at rebel positions near the town of Zlitan, west of the city. Dr. Ayman Abu Shahma, a physician in Misrata, said 18 fighters had been killed along with two civilians, including a 12-year-old girl. Thirty other people were wounded.
NATO late last week announced it had begun ramping up its airstrikes on military targets in the western part of Libya. It said it is targeting government forces in cities and along “major lines of communication.”
On Wednesday, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s secretary-general, said the alliance had damaged or destroyed more than 2,700 military targets since its campaign began.
“The momentum is against Gadhafi, his economic strength to sustain war is declining, his generals and ministers are deserting, the international community has turned against him,” he told reporters in Brussels. “For Gadhafi, the game is over.”
Fighting between rebels and government troops began in February when a popular movement against Gadhafi quickly escalated into armed conflict.
The civil war has been largely deadlocked, with the rebels controlling the east and Gadhafi clinging to large parts of western Libya, but unable to retake rebel bridgeheads there.
Along with Qawalish, rebels were able to push into the nearby mountain village of Kikla on Wednesday morning, said Col. Gomaa Ibrahim, a member of the local military council. It wasn’t immediately possible to confirm the Libyan government’s claim that the rebels had been forced back from Qawalish.
While the two towns are small, their capture would further expand the area seized from government troops in recent months by relatively small bands of mountain rebels. A string of similar victories has left rebels in control of most of the Nafusa mountains, bringing them within about 100 miles (160 kilometers) of Tripoli.
In Tripoli on Wednesday, Gadhafi’s regime sought to show it remains in control of the country by laying out plans to try rebel leaders for treason in court next week.
A judge compiling the charges laid out his case against 21 rebel officials, including the National Transitional Council’s head, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil. Defendants will be tried in absentia.
Rebel spokesman Jalal Galal dismissed the charges as a political stunt.
“He (Gadhafi) thinks it’s a joke or a game, but now the people have awakened, and the people have spoken,” he said in response to the allegations.
The charges include facilitating foreign intervention in Libya, providing aid to the enemy and seeking to topple Gadhafi.
Judge Khalifa Isa Khalifa told reporters in Tripoli that he will present the case before a special court presided over by a three-judge panel next week.
The allegations “amount to treason of the homeland of Libya,” government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said. Those found guilty of treason could face the death penalty.
Last week, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Sanoussi for alleged crimes against humanity. International prosecutors at the Netherlands-based court allege government troops fired on civilian protesters during anti-Gadhafi demonstrations inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year.
Libyan officials reject the ICC’s authority, saying their special court will bring justice to anyone who committed crimes during the uprising. Khalifa declined to say whether this also meant Gadhafi and his inner circle.
“We are ready and prepared to investigate any person in this country if there are people who are willing to come to the (attorney general) with accusations or complaints,” he said.
In rebel-held Benghazi, tens of thousands of demonstrators poured into Martyrs’ Square for what observers described as one of the biggest rallies in months. They waved the rebels’ tricolor flag along with those of allied nations including Qatar, France and Britain.
Associated Press writers Ben Hubbard and Maggie Michael in Cairo, Rami al-Shaheibi in Benghazi and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed reporting.