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High-ranking Libya official defects, flees

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 oil minister and head of the National Oil Co., crossed into neighboring Tunisia by road on Monday, according to a Tunisian security official and Abdel Moneim al-Houni, a former Libyan representative to the Arab League who was among the first wave of Libyan diplomats to defect.

The defections suggest Gadhafi's political structure is fraying, but it's unclear whether the internal strife is serious enough to undermine his ability to fight rebel forces as NATO airstrikes pound Libyan military targets.

Gadhafi appears to retain the backing of his core of military commanders. Still, support for Gadhafi seems to be waning in the capital, Tripoli. Pro-regime demonstrations are sparsely attended, even when heavily advertised in advance.

In Misrata, the main battleground in western Libya, the rebels claim they have driven back government troops from key access points and tried to push pro-Gadhafi gunners out of rocket range. -- AP

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