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World

US sends armed drones to Libya to support battle for Misrata

As clashes between rebel forces and troops loyal to Gadhafi continue, the US has begun to deploy unmanned armed drones to Libya. It is the latest attempt from the West to end the conflict which is reaching "stalemate."

A Predator drone flying over conflict zones in Afghanistan

Predator drones provide better visibility of targets

US President, Barack Obama authorized the deployment of missile-carrying drone warplanes over Libya on Thursday citing the "humanitarian situation," said US Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The US is expected to deploy the drones on Friday after the first launch, scheduled for Thursday, was postponed due to bad weather.

The White House

Washington says it will not increase its involvment

The predator drones are valued by the US air force for being low flying and providing better visibility on targets, increasing the precision of attacks on Gadhafi's ground forces.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates described the deployment as a "modest contribution" on Thursday, adding that it doesn't represent a major increase of the US role in the NATO mission to protect civilians and enforce a no-fly zone in Libya.

"This is a very limited additional role on our part but it does provide some additional capabilities to NATO," Gates said.

Drones welcomed by rebels

Nevertheless, the development was hailed by rebel fighters and supporters of the opposition council.

"We need something to change," Ahmed Fathi, a rebel fighter from Benghazi, told the German Press Agency dpa. "The new frontline is Misrata and we badly need help there," he said.

Libyan Army General Saleh Abdullah Ibrahim in front of a map of Misrata

Misrata remains in the hands of the rebels

Misrata has been the scene of fierce clashes since the conflict began over two months ago.

Although opposition forces have been able to retain control of key areas of the city, there have been hundreds of casualties as rebels battle Gadhafi's snipers in a bid to capture key buildings.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Gadhafi's forces were carrying out "vicious attacks" on the city and might have used cluster bombs against civilians.

Moreover, food and medical supplies are running out, long queues for petrol have been reported and thousands of stranded foreign workers are awaiting rescue in the port area.

Increasing stalemate

Residents have long been calling for stronger intervention from NATO and the West, who they say are being too cautious.

A top U.S. military officer claimed on Thursday that coalition air strikes had downgraded Gadhafi's main ground forces by 30 to 40 percent, but he admitted that the conflict is becoming increasingly deadlocked.

"It's certainly moving towards a stalemate," said Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military's joint chiefs of staff, addressing U.S. troops during a visit to Baghdad on Friday.

He asserted that the international consensus was that "Gaddafi's gotta go," but acknowledged it was unclear how long it might take for that to happen.

West boosting efforts

US Senator John McCain

McCain called the rebels 'heroes' during his visit

In a bid to aid rebel forces in ousting Libyan leader, Moammar Gadhafi, the West appears to be stepping up its commitment to ending the conflict in Libya.

After lobbying for greater US involvement in a UN-mandated NATO campaign, senior US Senator John McCain visited the eastern stronghold city of Benghazi on Friday, to hold talks with the rebel leadership.

France said it would dispatch up to 10 military advisers to Libya, while Britain plans to send up to a dozen officers to help rebels improve organization and communications. Italy is also considering sending a small military training team.

Author: Charlotte Chelsom-Pill (Reuters, AFP, dpa)

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