TRIPOLI, Libya – NATO denied a Libyan government charge Thursday that the alliance is intentionally using its airstrikes to assist rebel advances, saying it is sticking to its mandate to protect civilians.
Wing Cmdr. Mike Bracken, an alliance spokesman in Naples, Italy, said NATO is "not involved in the ground battles," although he acknowledged the alliance is tracking the fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Libya's Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim accused NATO earlier Thursday of intensifying its bombing campaign and backing foreign mercenaries to lay the groundwork for an advance by rebels trying to topple Qaddafi's regime.
In an early morning interview with The Associated Press, Kaim said increased bombings in recent days represent the "final phase" of NATO's air campaign. But he said the push will fail and that civilians will be the ones to pay the price.
Kaim said NATO targeted police checkpoints in the Nafusa mountains southwest of Tripoli ahead of a rebel advance toward the village of Qawalish, which rebel fighters said they seized Wednesday.
A fuel depot in the key eastern oil town of Brega was also destroyed, Kaim said. NATO said it hit equipment used to refuel government military vehicles.
The intensified barrage of airstrikes, particularly in the west of the country, is focused on targeting civilian infrastructure and police checkpoints, he said.
He also alleged that NATO was increasing efforts to provide weapons to rebel fighters.
"The aim of these attacks is to help the rebels to advance. But I assure you, it will be another failure for them," he said.
Kaim also claimed Libyan forces have evidence that Colombian mercenaries funded by the West and its Arab allies have joined the rebel fighters trying to advance toward the capital Tripoli from the western rebel-held city of Misrata.
Some of the Colombian fighters were killed in clashes near Misrata on Wednesday, he said. While Kaim did not provide evidence to substantiate the allegation, he said it would soon be shown to journalists based in Tripoli.
NATO cast doubt on the charge that mercenaries were involved.
"We've not seen anything to indicate this allegation might be true," said NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu. "But what we have seen are repeated consistent and credible reports that Qaddafi's forces have been using mercenaries, not just now or in recent months but for years and decades."
NATO began airstrikes against Libya in March. The coalition and its Arab allies are operating under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians.
Some countries in the coalition have interpreted that mandate broadly, with France acknowledging it has provided weapons to rebels operating in the mountains and other countries providing non-lethal aid to rebel-held areas.
Libyan officials on Monday showed journalists assault rifles and ammunition they claimed had been shipped to rebels by the wealthy Gulf Arab state of Qatar.
NATO late last week announced it had begun ramping up its airstrikes on military targets in the western part of Libya. It said it is targeting government forces in cities and along "major lines of communication."
Bracken, the NATO spokesman, said military operations have been running continuously over the past day in the Nafusa mountains southwest of Tripoli.
"We have seen NATO round-the-clock operations resulting in the removal of more than 60 targets" in and around the mountains, Bracken said.
He said another 18 targets, including a tunnel complex used to resupply government troops, were hit in the vicinity of Gharyan, a gateway city to the mountains about 50 miles south of the capital.
A string of victories by relatively small bands of mountain rebels has left them in control of most of the mountain range, bringing them within about 100 miles of Tripoli. The advances have energized a rebel campaign that is largely deadlocked on fronts east of the capital.
In Rome, Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said the country, Libya's former colonial ruler, is cutting back its participation in NATO's campaign by removing an aircraft carrier from the region and pulling thousands of troops home.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi is under pressure from his key ally the Northern League, which has opposed the war because of the cost and fears of an influx of migrants. After a Cabinet meeting Thursday, Berlusconi said he had always been against the war but had his "hands tied" once the U.N. authorized a no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians.
One rebel fighter was killed in shelling by government forces west of the rebel-held city of Misrata, Abdel-Wahab Mletan of the city's media committee told The Associated Press.
The shelling took place in Dafiniya, a semi-rural area west of Misrata, 140 miles west of Tripoli. Eighteen rebel fighters were killed in heavy government shelling in the same area Wednesday.
Also Thursday, Human Rights Watch said government troops laid land mines in at least three places in the western Nafusa mountains.
It said the three minefields are around the village of Qawalish, which rebel forces seized Wednesday.
The New York-based group said teams are working to remove the mines and called on the Libyan government to stop using such weapons.