Forces loyal to Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi are no longer able to launch a credible military offensive, the commander of NATO-led Libyan operations told AFP in an interview Thursday.
"The Kadhafi regime's forces continue to be weakened, both in strength and their will to fight," Canada's Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard said, speaking from his Italy headquarters, as rebel troops made new advances.
"They are no longer able to launch a credible offensive," he added.
NATO was authorized in March by UN Security Council resolution 1973 to defend Libya's civilian population from attacks by Colonel Kadhafi's regime, which faced a popular revolt after 42 years in power.
As NATO-led airstrikes have helped the rebels on the ground without managing to decisively turn the tide in the conflict, Kadhafi has brought in fighters from other African countries to bolster his embattled forces.
"We're seeing lots of mercenaries, ruthless mercenaries that come from other countries and are enlisted by Kadhafi's forces to inflict extreme violence on men, women and children," Bouchard said.
"The recruiting of these mercenaries continues," he said. "There is a growing demand for their services which lends credibility to the fact that Kadhafi's forces are being affected by NATO's actions as well as defections of generals, policemen and even politicians."
The rebels, meanwhile, have treaded water since scoring early victories that led to their control of Cyrenaica in the west, and enclaves in Tripoli.
Today, there's "activity" on three fronts, in Brega in the east, and in Misrata and Jebel Nefoussa in the west. Kadhafi forces are "shooting blindly on civilians," Bouchard said.
"On the three fronts, we're seeing changes as anti-Kadhafi forces march forward to stop the attacks on the population," he added.
Kadhafi's regime this week accused NATO airstrikes on the village of Majer of killing 85 people, including women and children, south of the disputed city of Zliten.
"I can assure you that the target was a legitimate one that contained mercenaries, a command centre and 4x4 vehicles modified with automatic weapons, rocket launchers or mortars," Bouchard said.
"I cannot believe that 85 civilians were present when we struck in the wee hours of the morning and given our intelligence" on the target, he added.
"I can assure you that there wasn't 85 civilians present, but I cannot assure you that there were none at all."
"Frankly, I cannot say if there were any civilian deaths or how many," said the general, who accused Kadhafi forces of often leaving already dead corpses at military sites after they have been leveled by NATO airstrikes to make the bombings appear like blunders.
The NATO mission is due to wrap up in September unless it is extended by states participating in it, including Britain, Canada, France, Italy and the United States. Their governments are under increasing fiscal pressure to pull back.
And if the mission "Unified Protector" is not renewed?
"It's just speculation," said Bouchard. "My goal is to bring this conflict to an end before the mission is over."