U.S. Senator John McCain (Republican-Arizona) has said the United States could be doing more to help Libyan rebels in their fight against longtime ruler Mummar Qaddafi, including restoring air support.
He arrived in the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi on April 22, calling the rebels fighting to overthrow Qaddafi his heroes. McCain, who said he would meet with the rebel National Transition Council in the afternoon, also said the rebels want to be recognized -- a move only France, Italy, and Qatar have made so far.
"They need a lot of help. They need more air support," McCain said. "The United States has unique capabilities, we should be restoring that. They want to be recognized."
McCain, who is the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee as well as a Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war, also visited a hospital in the city.
"I just came from the hospital where I saw a number of people who are badly wounded and dying. And, frankly, that puts a face on it that argues that maybe we should be doing everything we can to help these people, and maybe we're not, and they're dying," McCain said.
Upon arrival in Benghazi earlier in the day, McCain was reportedly greeted at the courthouse in the city center by a crowd of about 50 people, who chanted, "Libya free, Qaddafi go away -- thank you America, thank you [President Barack] Obama," and, "The nasty Qaddafi has left and McCain came."
McCain has been one of the strongest proponents of U.S. military intervention in Libya. He advocated for the United States to act back in February, weeks before the UN Security Council authorized action.
He also criticized the U.S. administration for turning control of the operation over to NATO and withdrawing U.S. combat aircraft, saying that "for the United States to withdraw our unique offensive capabilities at this time would send the wrong signal."
Separately, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office today signaled his agreement "in principle" to visit rebel-held Benghazi and backed the transfer of frozen Libyan funds to the rebels.
U.S. Sends In The Drones
McCain's arrival came one day after Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that U.S. President Obama authorized the use of unmanned drones to target forces loyal to Qaddafi, and as casualties mount in the besieged city of Misurata.
Gates made the announcement at a news conference on April 21 in Washington.
"Now the president has said that where we have some unique capabilities, he is willing to use those, and in fact he has approved the use of armed predators," Gates said. "And I think today may, in fact, have been their first mission. So I think that will give us some precision capability."
Predator drones are equipped with Hellfire missiles and piloted remotely from locations that can be hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. The United States has used them in military operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Iraq, and Yemen.
They can stay in the air for as long as 40 hours without being noticed from the ground and have a high success rate of hitting their targets. There have also been incidents where they accidentally killed civilians.
Appearing with Gates at the news conference was General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Cartwright said the United States planned to maintain two patrols of armed Predators above Libya at all times.
He said the first two Predators were sent to Libya on April 21 but had to turn back because of bad weather.
The move is being seen by many as an attempt by the White House to give a boost to NATO, which has been struggling with the mission to protect civilians since it assumed control of the operation from the United States.
Gates called the decision to deploy the drones "a modest contribution" to the NATO mission, stressing that regime change would work best if it came from the Libyan people.
"Regime change imposed from the outside, as we have seen in Iraq and in the Balkans, is incredibly difficult and works best, as we have seen in Tunisia and Egypt, when it is done from within," Gates said. "And we are trying to provide enough space and, in order to protect the opposition from Qaddafi's military to the extent we can, we are reducing his military capabilities."
Libyans in Benghazi expressed support for the move. Protester Abu Farouk told Reuters anything that helped to push out Qaddafi was fine by him.
"My opinion is yes we accept it, we like to have those airplanes to do the job," Farouk said. "We may lose civilians, but we need to do the job as soon as possible, we need to get rid of this germ as soon as possible, with any way, with any way we need."
Fighting In Misurata
Reports coming from the cut-off and beleaguered city of Misurata, which has seen fighting for nearly two months with hundreds of casualties, vary. Government fighters have begun launching attacks from within population centers, making them elusive targets for NATO planes.
The European Union said on April 22 that it would forge ahead with its plan for a possible military intervention to bring aid to Misurata despite UN reservations, AFP reported. Stocks of food, fuel and medicine are becoming depleted in the city, which is increasingly cut off from the outside world.
A video released April 21 by the Press Committee of Misurata, however, appeared to show rebels controlling buildings on the city's crucial Tripoli Street, which has been the site of intense fighting over the last few days.
The committee, which is affiliated with the rebel National Transition Council, also released a statement that said rebels had cleared pro-Qaddafi forces from the area, and that many of Qaddafi's soldiers had been killed or fled.
A official from the press committee told Reuters the rebels were in control of around 80 percent of the street, but Reuters could not independently verify the claims.
compiled from agency reports