BENGHAZI, Libya -- As Col. Moammar Gadhafi's forces tightened their grip on the oil town of Brega, Libya's rebel army commander slammed NATO on Tuesday for failing to carry out airstrikes and blocking a shipment of weapons and relief supplies that was headed to a city where fighting has raged for weeks.
Gen. Abdelfatah Younis' comments underscored growing Libyan rebel dissatisfaction with NATO, which took over the military campaign against Col. Gadhafi from the United States this week, but has watched the rebels continue to lose ground to government forces in a tug-of-war along Libya's Mediterranean coastline.
In the highest level contact between the United States and the rebels, White House envoy Chris Stevens met with opposition leaders Tuesday in Benghazi, the rebel capital in eastern Libya. Opposition leaders confirmed the meeting, but refused to offer details. The White House offered no comment.
In Washington, Gen. Younis' criticism was no surprise to some rebel supporters. "I am really perplexed by this strategy that military action will be limited to preventing humanitarian disasters, and regime change will be accomplished by political maneuvering," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "I think those are mixed signs and confusing policy, and we're seeing the results of that policy play out on the ground."
Rebel forces suffered more setbacks Tuesday, with rebels reporting that they had been pushed nearly 25 miles from Brega toward the strategic city of Ajdabiya. But Gen. Younis was particularly critical of NATO's response in Misrata, the only western city still in rebel hands after a weeks-long siege by Gadhafi forces.
On Tuesday morning, the Turkish navy, acting under NATO command, refused to allow a private ship carrying weapons, ammunition and medical supplies from the rebel capital of Benghazi to land at Misrata. The Turkish forces inspected the ship, which had been chartered by private citizens in Benghazi, then -- citing a U.N.-imposed arms embargo on Libya -- ordered the captain to surrender the arms or turn back, according to Italian journalist Gian Micalessin, who was aboard.
"Whoever stops any support to Misrata is ... assisting the criminal regime that is carrying out genocide in Misrata," Gen. Younis said. "They should have been assisted to reach Misrata, even if there were weapons, so people can defend their livelihoods."
Small demonstrations in Benghazi have urged NATO to do more to protect civilians, since the U.S. military stopped conducting air strikes Monday night and shifted to a support role in the 2-week-old military campaign. The Pentagon said some U.S. attack planes, such as A-10 Warthogs and Harrier jets, "remain available in 'standby mode,' and could be made available after a specific request from NATO leadership."
Gen. Younis said he and rebel commanders have provided NATO with the coordinates of government targets, but he complained that NATO forces take too long -- sometimes as long as eight hours -- to launch strikes. He also said NATO forces weren't allowing the rebels to use their own limited air power, including a few helicopters and fighter jets.
The Obama administration hasn't granted official recognition to the rebels. The Associated Press, citing an unidentified U.S. official in Washington, said Mr. Stevens was trying to get a better idea of who the rebels are, what they want and what their capabilities are.