West hits Libya forces, France sees "weeks" of war

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 25, 2011 3:06 PM
West hits Libya forces, France sees "weeks" of war

By Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Western warplanes struck Libyan ground forces at a strategically important eastern town, pursuing a nearly week-old campaign that has yet to deliver a crippling blow to Muammar Gaddafi's tanks and artillery.

In Tripoli, residents reported another air raid just before dawn on Friday, hearing the roar of a warplane, followed by a distant explosion and bursts of anti-aircraft gunfire.

Allied operations to enforce a no fly zone to stop a violent crackdown against a popular uprising won more Arab support when the United Arab Emirates said it would take part, but France cautioned the conflict would not be quick.

"I doubt that it will be days," Admiral Edouard Guillaud told France Info radio. "I think it will be weeks. I hope it will not take months."

Guillaud said a French plane destroyed an artillery battery belonging to Gaddafi's forces near the eastern frontline town of Ajdabiyah, 150 km (90 miles) south of Benghazi. Ajdabiyah is strategically important for both sides as it commands the coastal highway to the west.

In London, the Ministry of Defense said British Tornado aircraft had also been active there, firing missiles overnight at Libyan military vehicles threatening civilians.

NATO said after four days of tough negotiations that it would enforce the no-fly zone but stopped short of taking full command of U.N.-backed military operations to protect civilians from forces loyal to Gaddafi.

NATO officials said a decision was expected on Sunday on whether to broaden the mandate to take full command, including over attacks on ground targets to protect civilian areas under threat from Muammar Gaddafi's forces.

Differences over the scope the U.N. resolution gave for military action against Gaddafi's army led to days of heated arguments within NATO about its role in the operation.

The United States, embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan, is keen to step back and play a supporting role in Libya in order to preserve alliance unity and maintain the support of Muslim countries for the U.N.-mandated intervention.

Turkey had wanted to be able to use its NATO veto to limit allied operations against Libyan infrastructure and avoid casualties among Muslim civilians from coalition air raids.

SUDAN SAID TO SUPPORT NO FLY ZONE

Despite the apparently cumbersome structure of the planned new command and Arab jitters on the use of force, the operation continues to receive support from beyond Western ranks.

The United Arab Emirates will send 12 planes to take part in operations to enforce the no-fly zone in Libya, the state news agency said.

Qatar has already contributed two fighters and two military transport planes to help enforce the no-fly zone.

And at the United Nations, envoys said Sudan had quietly granted permission to use its airspace to nations enforcing the no-fly zone. Sudan's U.N. ambassador, Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman, neither confirmed nor denied that report.

South of the Sahara, local media quoted a cabinet minister as saying Uganda would freeze Libyan assets worth about $375 million in line with a U.N. resolution imposing sanctions on Libya following Gaddafi's violence crackdown.

Western jets pounded targets in southern Libya on Thursday but failed to prevent government tanks re-entering the western city of Misrata, whose main hospital was besieged by armor and government snipers.

Western commanders hope rebel forces in eastern Libya will overthrow Gaddafi, but the return of tanks to Misrata under cover of darkness highlighted the difficulties they face in trying to force the Libyan leader to cease fire.

Guns fell relatively silent in Misrata overnight, although government snipers were still in the city center, a rebel spokesman said on Friday.

"The snipers are still hiding in buildings located on Tripoli Street," Sami said. "We don't know how many of them remain. The rebels have so far killed 30 of them."

Rebels say they have regained control of the port from government forces. The port is the city's lifeline to food and medical supplies, international officials say.

Residents say electricity, water and regular land and cell phone service to the town are not functioning.

In Benghazi, where the opposition has set up an alternative government, rebel fighters say they need anti-tank weapons if they are to end Gaddafi's 41-year rule.

"We need arms and ammunition. This is our only problem," rebel military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Bani told a briefing.

In Tripoli, a Libyan energy official said on Thursday Libya was short of fuel and needs to import more, but a ship with fuel now bound for Tripoli may be stopped by Western forces.

"There is a shortage of fuel and we are trying to solve the problem," the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council there was no evidence Tripoli was complying with U.N. resolutions. His special envoy to Libya had warned Gaddafi's government of possible "additional measures" if Libya failed to comply with its ceasefire demand.

AIR STRIKES

But the Libyan government denies its army is conducting any offensive operations and says troops are only defending themselves when they come under attack.

Members of Gaddafi's circle are putting out feelers to seek a ceasefire or safe passage from Libya, according to U.S. and European officials and a businessman close to the Libyan leadership.

Messages seeking some kind of peaceful end to U.N.-backed military action or a safe exit for members of Gaddafi's entourage have been sent via intermediaries in Austria, Britain and France, said Roger Tamraz, a Middle Eastern businessman with long experience conducting deals with the Libyan regime.

In an interview on Tuesday with a U.S. television network, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was aware that people close to Gaddafi had been trying to make contact.

(Reporting by Mohammed Abbas and Angus MacSwan in Benghazi, Hamid Ould Ahmed and Christian Lowe in Algiers, Tom Perry in Cairo, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Phil Stewart in Moscow, Andrew Quinn in Washington, Catherine Bremer, Emmanuel Jarry and Yves Clarisse in Paris, Rosalba O'Brien in London; writing by Jon Boyle; editing by Giles Elgood)