Libyan rebels urged the U.S. to resume a more central role in the NATO-led air campaign on Wednesday, as thousands of people in the western city of Misurata fled a withering bombardment by Moammar Gadhafi's forces.
"When the Americans were involved, the mission was very active and it was more leaning toward protecting the civilians," rebel spokesman Mahmoud Shammam said as top Western and Arab envoys gathered in Qatar's capital to discuss ways to end the Libyan crisis. "NATO is very slow responding to these attacks on the civilians. We'd like to see more work toward protecting the civilians."
Shamman's remarks before the one-day conference were the latest sign that the U.S., which recently turned over enforcement of a U.N.-mandated no-fly zone over Libya to its NATO allies, might have handed over the reins too soon.
French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet complained Tuesday that France and Britain were carrying "the brunt of the burden" for the Libya operation. American forces are now in support, not combat roles in the airstrike campaign, and the reduced U.S. effort has made it impossible "to loosen the noose around Misurata," Longuet said.
On Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe urged allies in the NATO-led coalition to "keep up strong and robust military pressure" to force Gadhafi out.
A NATO official confirmed a strike Wednesday on at least one ammunition bunker outside the Libyan capital, Tripoli. He asked that his name not be used because the military alliance was not yet releasing the information publicly.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC that he thinks the Libyan opposition is "steadily becoming better organized," but could not predict how long the military stalemate would persist.
In Paris, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy planned to hold talks Wednesday about the military operation in Libya.
"Let's be realistic. The fact that the U.S. has left the sort of the kinetic part of the air operation has had a sizable impact. That is fairly obvious," said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.
Divisions also have emerged within NATO over where to go next with the Libya operation.
Italy's foreign ministry spokesman, Maurizio Massari, said Wednesday that the idea of giving the rebels defense weapons was under consideration. "The discussion of arms is certainly on the table," he said. "We are not talking about offensive arms. ... Every country will decide. It is a political decision."
Belgium has said it opposes either boosting air attacks or giving arms to the opposition.
In the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, rebel spokesman Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga said representatives are in negotiations over arms deals with the countries that have recognized the movement's National Transitional Council — France, Italy and Qatar — as well as with other countries.
"I think there will be no problem receiving weapons," Ghoga said.
He added: "We believe that the solution with Col. Gadhafi's regime will only come through force. There will not be a political solution unless it is imposed on this regime by the international community."
A Race To Escape Misurata
As Gadhafi's forces continued to pound the besieged city of Misurata, thousands of people were desperately trying to get out.
On Monday, a Qatari aid ship carried some 600 Libyans and Egyptians out of Misurata, Libya's third-largest city and the only western city still partially in the hands of rebels.
Salma Omar is one of the people who got out Monday. She was transferred to the eastern city of Tobruk, near the Egyptian border, where the rebels hold firm control.
Omar, who said she spent nearly two months trapped in her house, listened to the sounds of shells, screams and gunfire day after day in Misurata. She said that in the 70 years she lived in the city, she had never seen anything like it: no water, no electricity and people falling dead in the streets.
"It was very difficult for me leaving my country, but because of the attacks and the strikes, I had to leave," she told NPR through an interpreter as she bounced one of her six grandchildren on her knee. "My family is OK. It's a large family; they couldn't all leave at once."
Standing nearby was Nagwa Brahim, an Egyptian worker who fled on the same boat as Omar. Cradling a young, curly-haired girl with startling blue eyes, Brahim said that when the shells started landing near her house, she and her neighbor fled to a school while they waited desperately for a way out.
"The shelling was terrifying, and the stories we heard were worse," she told NPR. "We heard that Gadhafi troops were kidnapping people."
International aid groups have warned of a humanitarian crisis in Misurata as the violence there and across the North African country drags on.
Libyan opposition spokesman Ali al-Issawi said Gadhafi's soldiers have killed about 10,000 people throughout the country and wounded 30,000 others. He said an additional 20,000 people were missing and thought to be held in Gadhafi's prisons. There was no way to independently verify his claims.
Qatari Prince Pleads For Aid For Rebels
As opposition leaders prepared to meet with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other top Western and Arab envoys in Qatar, the country's crown prince told international envoys that it's time to help the uprising tip the scales against Gadhafi's regime.
"It is time to help the Libyan people defend themselves, and to defend the Libyan people," said Sheik Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, whose nation is one of the few Arab states contributing to the NATO-led air campaign in Libya and helped the rebels sell oil under their control. "And what are the rebels except civilians who have taken up arms to defend themselves in a difficult situation and [who fight] an uneven battle?"
Wednesday's meeting also was expected to be the first high-profile forum for Gadhafi's former foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, who defected to Britain last month. But rebel officials insisted that Koussa has no role in their movement.
The rebels have said they will not bend on their demands that any peace proposal require Gadhafi and his inner circle to leave the country. The rebel conditions for Gadhafi's ouster effectively killed a ceasefire bid by the African Union this week.
A spokesman for the African Union, which has attempted to broker a cease-fire, suggested Wednesday that there is no international consensus on trying to force out Gadhafi, even though the U.S., France, Britain and others have called for him to quit.
"We cannot as international or regional organizations say, 'Go,' " said Noureddine Mezni, a spokesman for the bloc's chairman.
In Tripoli, meanwhile, the Libyan finance minister, Abdulhafid Zlitni, angrily denounced proposals by rebel leaders that they be given some of the regime's assets that were frozen as part of international sanctions.
"That is financial piracy," Zlitni said.
Zlitni warned that the government would go to court to block any possible transfer assets to the rebels. Those holding the assets have no right to transfer them, "unless they have a clear mandate from the U.N. Security Council," Zlitni said. "This is theft."
The minister said the country will be able to manage economically despite the sanctions.
He said while about $120 billion in Libyan assets have been frozen, the country has billions of dollars in contingency funds at its disposal. He did not specify the size of Libya's reserves, but added that "those contingency reserves are going to last for quite some time."
Still, Zlitni acknowledged that the sanctions "hurt the financial and economic situation of the majority of Libyans which the U.N. did not intend."
Zlitni said he has lowered the price of fuel by 25 percent and increased salaries by 50 percent to ease the economic pressure on ordinary Libyans.
He said Libya currently produces only about 65 percent of its daily fuel requirements because of the sanctions. As a result of the shortage, long lines of dozens of cars are seen waiting at gas stations across the Gadhafi-controlled areas.
NPR's Peter Kenyon in Tobruk contributed to this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.