TRIPOLI, Libya >> NATO widened its campaign to weaken Moammar Gadhafi’s regime with airstrikes on desert command centers and sea patrols to intercept ships, the military alliance said Saturday, amid signs of growing public anger over fuel shortages in government-held territory.
In the coastal town of Zawiya, crowds apparently outraged by dwindling fuel supplies tried to stab reporters in a minibus on a state-supervised trip to the Tunisian border.
The journalists — a Chinese news correspondent and two Britons: a BBC technician and a Reuters video producer — were not harmed in the attack, the first of its kind targeting foreign reporters covering the Libyan conflict.
The assailants also attacked the government official accompanying the reporters — once unimaginable in Libya and a sign of the growing frustrations of residents struggling to cope with rising food prices and gasoline shortages.
Gadhafi has remained defiant against the widening NATO attacks and international pressure to step down.
At the same time, however, NATO has come under increasing criticism that it is overstepping the U.N. Security Council’s mandate, which provides for the protection of civilians but not for wider attacks. The Pan African Parliament, the legislative body of the African Union, plans an emergency session next week to discuss what it calls NATO’s “military aggression.”
The latest reported NATO raids targeted the sprawling, heavily fortified Gadhafi compound early Saturday, said government spokesman Ibrahim Uthman. The spokesman earlier said a NATO strike hit the port but later said that information was incorrect.
Uthman said he believed four people were hit in the strike but the extent of their injuries was not immediately clear.
On Friday, NATO also struck a facility near the capital Friday and a command and control hub near Sebha, a Gadhafi stronghold deep in Libya’s southwestern desert, a NATO statement said in Brussels. Three surface-to-air missile launchers were hit near the government-held town of Sirte, and three rocket launchers near the rebel-held town of Zintan in the mountains south of Tripoli.
On Friday, NATO warplanes also bombed eight Libyan naval vessels in three ports, leaving ships partially sunken and charred and showering docks with debris in the military alliance’s broadest attack on Gadhafi’s navy.
NATO spokesman Wing Cmdr. Mike Bracken said the vessels were “legitimate and legal targets” because the Libyan navy had tried to mine the harbor at the rebel-held port of Misrata and had attempted to carry out attacks on shipping there.
Commandant Omran al-Forjani, head of Libya’s coast guard, claimed the targeted ships were used to patrol Libyan waters for boats carrying African migrants trying to make the dangerous sea crossing to Europe and for search-and-rescue operations.
A NATO task force has also boarded 47 vessels — including one on Friday — and seven ships suspected of carrying arms have been diverted since the naval operation started in mid-March.
The latest vessel to be boarded was identified as the MV Jupiter, NATO said Saturday. The tanker, whose registration remained unclear, was carrying gasoline and was instructed not to continue to Libya “because we had reason to believe it was intended for military purposes”, a NATO official said.
“It’s clear to NATO that Gadhafi’s regime is diverting fuel to its war machine,” said the official who could not be identified under standing rules.
The attack on the foreign journalists took place as their vehicle was caught in a traffic jam caused by miles-long lines of cars waiting for days for fuel, the journalists said.
Men from the fuel line smashed the bus door and approached the three reporters with a kitchen knife and two others brandished pistols.
They demanded to know where the reporters were from and accused them of filming the gas line. Attackers slashed the bus tires in an attempt to prevent the reporters from fleeing.
Several plainclothes security agents fired into the air around the bus to drive back the crowd. Another security man boarded the bus and pushed out the attackers. Police led the bus to a nearby station for the reporters’ safety.
Also Saturday, rights group Amnesty International said hundreds of men have disappeared from Misrata, the rebels’ main toehold in western Libya. The London-based group said Libyan forces seized the men in house raids, from mosques and from the front line where some of them were fighting.
The Amnesty staff, who are currently based in Misrata, cited the case of the el-Toumi family. They said during a house raid on March 18, government forces seized seven brothers, two cousins and an uncle, who are still missing.
The rights group said they interviewed one woman who said a soldier forced her to pull up her dress. She said he fondled her, but was then hushed by her family who did not want to bring attention to the case.
Libyan officials, meanwhile, have tried to portray the NATO attacks as hitting civilian and other non-military targets.
Libyan officials in Tripoli took reporters to a government building that was bombed earlier this week. The officials said the building’s offices were used to follow up on corruption cases, but NATO officials had described it as a “command and control center” — the standard description of most targets.
The building appeared to have some civilian use. Strewn, charred papers shoved in an abandoned sack showed correspondence of officials trying to pursue small corruption cases.
One paper dated Oct. 29, 2005, summoned a seller of expired medicines to give a statement to authorities. A paper from July 7, 2010, urges education heads to prevent cheating in exams. Another from Oct. 9, 2010, lists the problems that delayed the building of 52 units for seven years and noted other overdue projects.
“In whose interests is it to fight people who fight corruption?” asked a government employee, Othman Baraka.
In Paris, France’s Foreign Ministry said four Frenchmen held by Libyan rebel forces on suspicion of spying have been released and are now in Egypt.
The four worked for a private security company and were detained by Libya’s rebel forces at a checkpoint on May 12 in Benghazi, the eastern Libya base for rebel forces. A rebel commander at the time accused them of spying. The fifth member of the group had died of wounds he suffered after being shot at the checkpoint.