Libya: Is Nato-rebel alliance turning sour?

Andrew Harding
Africa correspondent
@BBCAndrewHon Twitter

image source, AFP
image captionThe rebels accuse pro-Gaddafi forces of hiding weapons in schools

There's a joke going around the frontlines here in Misrata - one borne of growing frustration with Nato.

When the rebels see jets overhead failing to attack any of the rocket launchers pounding their positions they shrug and say: "It must be Canada's turn this week."

I'm sure the Canadians don't deserve to be the brunt of such dark humour, but the sense of disappointment with Nato's military performance around this besieged city is palpable.

"I feel upset… I'm not satisfied," says Fathi Bashaga, when I ask him to sum up his attitude to Nato.

Mr Bashaga, a senior military official here and the man who acts as coordinator between the rebels and Nato, says he speaks constantly by satellite phone to "a man" from the western security alliance who is based in Benghazi, the rebel headquarters.

"Nato decisions are very slow and very complicated. Nato send aircraft for reconnaissance, they take a picture, they take time to analyse the picture, then take time to take the decision to send the fighter to attack the target. Then the target moved.

"Gaddafi forces now learn Nato [are] forbidden to attack schools and mosques so they hide their tanks and rockets near them. Also, Nato only striking at night-time for two or three hours. Apaches also attacking in night-time. Not one of our fighters saw Apaches until now," Mr Bashaga says.

Rebel rivalry

I asked him if he complained to Nato.

"Yes, we complain and tell them," he says.

And Nato's reply? "They listen to us, but they are not saying anything."

image source, Getty Images
image captionThe Canadian air force is the butt of jokes in rebel circles in Libya

Is it fair criticism? Or is this simply the coming-down-to-earth frustration of a rebel movement that managed, against the odds, to win control of its own city in close-combat fighting, but now finds itself struggling on open ground without the necessary equipment and against a far better armed enemy?

The rebels are trying to advance, on various fronts, towards Zliten - a town some 50km (31 miles) to the west of Misrata. But it is complicated.

"It's pride mostly," says Lameen Mustapha Ashwedi, who commands one of the battalions on the western front.

Anti-Gaddafi forces in Zliten have made it clear they don't want to be "liberated" by their neighbours from Misrata.

"They want to do something by themselves for their city, so that they can say in the future that they liberated their own city. It's about history for them," explains Mr Ashwedi.

His forces are still pushing forward and trying to outflank Col Gaddafi's forces around Zliten. But he reckons it could be several weeks before the town falls.