McCain calls for increased support for Libyan rebels

U.S. Sen. John McCain, backdropped with a pre-Gadhafi flag, one of the strongest proponents in Congress of the American military intervention in Libya, said Friday that Libyan rebels fighting Moammar Gadhafi’s troops are his heroes.

BENGHAZI, Libya -- U.S. Sen. John McCain called for increased military support for Libya's rebels Friday, including weapons, training and stepped-up airstrikes, in a full-throated endorsement of the opposition in its fight to oust Moammar Gadhafi.

A day after the U.S. began flying armed drones to bolster NATO firepower, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee said the United States and other nations should recognize the opposition's political leadership as the "legitimate voice of the Libyan people."

The White House disagreed, saying it was for the Libyan people to decide who their leaders are.

McCain also called the rebels "patriots" with no links to al-Qaida, in contrast to what some critics have suggested, and added that they should receive Gadhafi assets that were frozen by other countries.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, added that although the timing is hard to predict, the eventual ouster of Gadhafi and his family from power "is certain."

In the besieged western city of Misrata, meanwhile, rebels raised their tricolor flag atop an eight-story building in celebration after driving pro-government snipers out of the structure on Thursday.

The building commands a strategic view of the central part of Libya's third-largest city and the key main thoroughfare of Tripoli Street. The snipers had terrorized residents and pinned down rebel fighters.

As a result, the number of civilian casualties dropped dramatically Friday for the first time in several weeks, said one rebel who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation.

"Spirits are high, but the military situation is still unknown," he said. "The rebels easily entered yesterday, so it was clear that the Gadhafi forces quickly withdrew."

Hundreds of people have been killed as government forces have attacked the city of 300,000 people, with NATO's air campaign largely unable to strike at the attackers because of their proximity to civilians -- a predicament that the drones could help resolve.

At a news conference in Benghazi, McCain said he did not believe that the United States should send in ground troops, but it should be much more involved in the air campaign and "facilitate" the arming and training of the rebels, much as it armed the mujahedeen who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

"We need to urgently step up the NATO air campaign to protect Libyan civilians, especially in Misrata," he said. "We desperately need more close air support and strike assets."

On Thursday the U.S. began flying armed drones that are "uniquely suited for urban areas," said U.S. Marine Gen. James Cartwright. The drones can fly lower and counteract the pro-Gadhafi forces' tactic of traveling in civilian vehicles that are difficult to distinguish from those of rebel forces.

Thursday's first mission, however, was forced to turn back due to poor weather without firing any of its Hellfire missiles, Cartwright said.

McCain said he supported the use of the drones "so we can better identify Gadhafi's forces as they seek to conceal themselves in civilian areas."