TRIPOLI, Libya - Another high-ranking Libyan official has defected and fled the country amid a widening NATO campaign of bombings as well as leafleting and other psychological warfare to persuade Moammar Gadhafi's troops to stop fighting.
Shukri Ghanem, the Libyan oil minister and head of the National Oil Co., crossed into Tunisia by road Monday, according to a Tunisian security official and Abdel Moneim al-Houni, a former Libyan Arab League representative who was among the first wave of Libyan diplomats to defect.
The defections suggest that Gadhafi's political structure is fraying, but it is unclear whether there is enough internal strife to seriously undermine his ability to fight rebel forces as NATO air strikes pound Libyan military targets. Gadhafi appears to retain the backing of his core of military commanders.
Still, his support seems to be waning in the capital, Tripoli. Pro-regime demonstrations are sparsely attended, even when heavily advertised in advance.
Rebel forces have reported some gains in recent days. In Misrata, the main battleground in western Libya, opposition fighters say they have driven back government troops from key access points and tried to push pro-Gadhafi gunners out of rocket range for the city.
NATO said Tuesday that it would step up psychological-warfare operations to try to persuade troops loyal to Gadhafi to abandon the fight.
Wing Cmdr. Mike Bracken, speaking in Naples, Italy, said NATO planes had been dropping leaflets and broadcasting messages to Libyan forces urging them "to return to their barracks and homes."
Bracken said the messages also had advised pro-regime troops "to move away from any military equipment" that could be targeted by NATO's strike aircraft.
He did not provide further details on the psychological operations. But the United States has been using a specially modified Air Force C-130 transport to broadcast messages to Libyan forces in AM, FM, high-frequency radio, TV, and military-communications bands.
In recent days, NATO attacks have concentrated on military and logistics hubs in Tripoli.
Government officials were not immediately available to comment on the oil minister's defection.
Developments in the Region
Egypt: The Justice Ministry ordered the wife of deposed President Hosni Mubarak released from custody without bail after she relinquished her disputed assets. Suzanne Mubarak, 70, has turned over property and money to the state valued at about $4 million. The move aimed to settle corruption allegations, but it was unclear whether she still faces trial. Prosecutors have alleged that Suzanne Mubarak had millions in bank accounts in Egypt. Hosni Mubarak has been in custody since April.
Yemen: Two soldiers and a civilian were killed when armed men believed to belong to al-Qaeda attacked security posts in the city of Mukalla, security officials said. Yemen's al-Qaeda offshoot has taken advantage of three months of protests calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step up operations in the country's weakly governed provinces. Demonstrations continued across Yemen, and dozens of protesters were injured by security forces, activists said.
Bahrain: Nine police officers were injured after being hit by a car during
a clash with suspected protesters, authorities said, in a sign that a military-led crackdown has failed to quell months of unrest. The report by the official Bahrain News Agency is part of stepped-up efforts by Sunni rulers to draw attention to alleged violence by Shiite-led protesters, who have been demanding greater rights.
- Associated Press