TRIPOLI, Libya — NATO said Saturday it has begun ramping up its air strikes on military targets in western Libya, where rebel forces claim a string of advances through territory still largely under Moammar Gadhafi’s control.
Gadhafi’s regime is determined to stand firm against opposition fighters moving from southern and eastern fronts toward the capital Tripoli. The rebels have largely solidified control over the eastern third of Libya but are struggling to push out of pockets they hold in the west.
In a boost for Gadhafi, meanwhile, the African Union called on member states Saturday to disregard an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court against the Libyan leader. This could enable Gadhafi to travel freely on the continent. The warrant was issued earlier this year for his alleged role in a brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters.
NATO’s comments about its latest air strikes suggest the alliance is hoping to tip the balance further in the rebels’ favor despite threats by Gadhafi to carry out attacks in Europe unless the air strikes stop.
The coalition said it destroyed more than 50 military targets in the west last week. It says it is targeting government forces in cities and along “major lines of communication.”
“We are engaging all military assets that are being used to indiscriminately target the civilian population throughout Libya,” Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, commander of NATO’s Libya mission, said in the statement sent Saturday.
NATO said more than 1.8 million civilians are at risk from a buildup of forces loyal to Gadhafi in western cities along the coast and in the Nafusa mountains southwest of the capital.
Rebels control several Nafusa mountain towns and the vital port city of Misrata. The rest of western Libya, including the heavily protected capital Tripoli, remain under Gadhafi’s control.