Misurata, the only rebel-held city in western Libya, has asked that NATO troops be sent to fight alongside the rebels holding off Libyan forces, a local government representative said Tuesday.
"If they don't come, we will die," Nouri Abdul Ati, a member of the 17-member ruling body in Misurata, told reporters as heavy machine gun fire, rockets and mortar rounds exploded in the near distance. "Grad rockets don't leave anybody alive," he said, referring to the truck-mounted rockets used by the Libyan military.
The local council in this besieged city sent its plea via letter a week ago to the Transitional National Council, the national opposition government in Benghazi in eastern Libya. The letter urged that NATO or United Nations troops be asked to defend Misurata against Moammar Kadafi's forces, Ati said. The national council has yet to reply.
"We need a force from NATO or the U.N. on the ground now," Ati said at a house set amid date palms, as the night's regular roar of heavy shelling commenced. "We did not accept any foreign soldiers on our land, but that was before we faced the crimes of Kadafi."
In Washington, State Department officials said the United States wouldn't be sending U.S. ground troops under any circumstances but its European allies were free to do what they want.
Asked about a European Union plan to send ground troops to allow access for humanitarian aid, Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman said, "Our partners are sovereign nations and make their own decisions."
Ati said Misurata's rebels want the French and British military fighting alongside the informal Libyan paramilitary units.
He was emphatic that the city, assaulted on all sides by Kadafi, was running out of time as supplies dwindled and the attacks killed and wounded more people.
"We are asking on the basis of Islamic and humanitarian principles for someone to come and stop the killing," Ati said. Before the uprising, he headed Misurata's lawyers and judges union.
In Brussels, a senior NATO officer said coalition warplanes had destroyed more than 40 tanks around Misurata, but acknowledged that airstrikes alone were insufficient to halt Kadafi's the siege of the city.
"There is a limit to what can be achieved with air power to stop fighting in a city," Dutch Brig. Gen. Mark van Uhm said at a news briefing, according to a transcript released by NATO. Van Uhm, head of NATO's strategic operations center, called the fighting in Misurata "intense."
Doctors in Misurata have estimated the siege-related death toll in the city at 1,000, including 600 at hospitals and others not brought by families to the morgue.
"The whole Arab world is calling for intervention of the West for the first time in history," he said. "We don't have a problem in principle with the West in Misurata. We know they want the oil of Libya. So what, we will sell them the oil."
Misurata, Libya's third-largest city, has been bombarded for nearly two months by Kadafi's forces.
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.