West strikes deep in Libya, NATO to take command

Reuters News
|
Posted: Mar 24, 2011 3:18 PM

By Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Western warplanes hit military targets deep inside Libya on Thursday but failed to prevent tanks reentering the western town of Misrata and besieging its main hospital.

On the diplomatic front, Turkey said NATO members had resolved differences over the command and aims of the campaign, which would be transferred from the United States to the Western military alliance within one or two days.

"Compromise has been reached in principle in a very short time," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters. "The operation will be handed over to NATO completely."

Air strikes destroyed government tanks on the outskirts of rebel-held Misrata, but other tanks inside the city were not hit, a resident said, underlining the difficulty of the U.N.-backed military mission to protect Libyans from Muammar Gaddafi.

Libya's government said it was in full control of Misrata but an opposition spokesman said by telephone that rebels had killed 30 snipers who had been picking off civilians from rooftops in the town. Government warships had left the port.

"There were clashes today and our fighters managed to find a way to reach the snipers on rooftops and killed 30 of them," rebel spokesman Abdulbasset Abu Mzereiq said by telephone.

The agreement on operational command, which followed four days of wrangling, came as Western forces moved deeper into Libya and on to other strategic targets, having taken out Libyan air defenses.

The African Union meanwhile invited officials from Gaddafi's government, the opposition, the European Union, U.N. Security Council and neighboring Arab countries to discuss the crisis on Friday in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

Gaddafi's tanks rolled back into Misrata under the cover of darkness and shelled the area near the hospital, which was also under fire from government snipers, residents and rebels said.

"The situation is very serious," a doctor in the western town said by telephone before the line was cut off.

A resident said around 6,000 workers and family members from Egypt and other African countries were stuck in the port.

Libyan government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said government forces controlled the town with only a hardcore of rebels holding out.

"These people are al Qaeda affiliates, they are prepared to die, they want to die, because death for them is happiness, is paradise. They know they are going to die," he said.

Rebels, however, said fighting continued in the town.

Elsewhere, clashes between rebels and besieging forces continued in the eastern frontline town of Ajdabiyah, said Abu Musab, who left the town by car with his family of 10.

"There is no water, no power and the bombing is random. Everyone has left," he said, adding that Gaddafi's forces were positioned to the east, west and south of the town.

"There are revolutionaries in the town and there is fighting going on right now."

PLANE DESTROYED

Western commanders are hoping the rag-tag rebel force in eastern Libya will overthrow Gaddafi for them but there is now little movement on the eastern front line at Ajdabiyah, 150 km (90 miles) to the south of Benghazi.

France said it had hit an air base in central Libya early on Thursday, the fifth night of Western air strikes, and had also hit a government plane after it landed at Misrata airport.

Al Arabiya television said coalition planes struck Sabha, a Gaddafi stronghold in southern Libya.

A Libyan official said fuel storage tanks and a telecommunications tower in Tripoli were among places hit. A target in the Tajoura district which a resident said was a military area was also hit twice on Thursday.

Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said strikes had hit military and civilian compounds in the central Jufrah region and other targets in Tripoli, Misrata and south of Benghazi in the east, home to a emerging alternative government.

Libyan officials took Reuters journalists to a Tripoli hospital to see 18 male corpses, some charred beyond recognition, saying they were military personnel and civilians killed by Western bombing overnight.

It was the first time foreign reporters had been shown alleged victims of the air strikes and it was not possible to verify how many were civilians. Libya says dozens have been killed. Western forces deny any have been killed in the strikes.

But Haitham al-Trablousi, a doctor in Tripoli, told Al Arabiya television by telephone: "There are no civilian casualties and the bombing is very accurate....All the bodies which we have seen on the Libyan channels are corpses of people killed during the intifada (uprising) in Zawiyah."

Seeking to allay fears of a protracted and bloody conflict, France said it could take days or weeks to destroy Gaddafi's military, but would not need months.

"You can't expect us to achieve our objective in just five days," Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters.

"APPALLING VIOLENCE"

The Libyan government denies its army is conducting any offensive operations and says troops are only defending themselves when they come under attack. But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said attacks by government forces showed Gaddafi's talk of having called a ceasefire was "an utter sham".

Asked what should be done if the air strikes fail to restrain Gaddafi, only 7 percent of Americans favored sending in U.S. and allied ground troops in a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Thursday, and only 17 percent saw Obama as a strong and decisive leader.

(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; writing by Jon Boyle; editing by Mark Trevelyan)