TRIPOLI - Muammar Gaddafi's forces attacked two west Libyan towns, killing dozens, while rebels were pinned down in the east and NATO tried to resolve a dispute over who should lead the Western air campaign.
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With anti-Gaddafi rebels struggling to capitalize on the ground on the air strikes against Libyan tanks and air defenses, Western countries had still to decide who would take over command once Washington pulled back in a few days.
In the latest fighting on Tuesday, Gaddafi's tanks shelled the rebel-held western town of Misrata and casualties included four children killed when their car was hit, residents said, adding the death toll for Monday alone had reached 40.
Residents painted a grim picture of the situation in Misrata, under
siege by Gaddafi loyalists for weeks, with tanks in the city center and
doctors operating on people with bullet and shrapnel wounds in hospital
"The situation here is very bad. Tanks started shelling the town this
morning," a resident called Mohammed told Reuters by telephone from
outside the city's hospital, adding: "Snipers are taking part in the
operation too. A civilian car was destroyed killing four children on
board, the oldest is aged 13 years."
But Libya's deputy foreign minister said the army was not conducting
offensive operations, only defending itself. Western forces are more
interested in helping rebels than protecting civilians, he said, and are
determined to assassinate Gaddafi.
"That's the problem now we are seeing, the coalition forces they are
part of the war against the legitimate government," Libyan Deputy
Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim told Reuters.
In the first apparent air force loss of the campaign, a US F-15E crashed
in Libya overnight and its two crew members were rescued, the US
military said. The crash was likely caused by mechanical failure and not
hostile fire, it said.
Explosions and anti-aircraft fire have reverberated across Tripoli for
three nights and state television reported several attacks by the
"crusader enemy". Twenty Tomahawk missiles were fired at Libyan targets
overnight, the US military said.
A Reuters correspondent taken to a naval facility in east Tripoli by
Libyan officials saw four Soviet-made missile carrier trucks which were
destroyed. They were parked inside a building whose roof had collapsed,
leaving piles of smoldering rubble.
"Yesterday six missiles and one bomb from a warplane hit this facility,"
said Captain Fathi al-Rabti, an officer at the facility. "It was a
massive explosion."Rebels pinned down in East
Gaddafi's forces were trying to seize the western rebel-held town of
Zintan near the Tunisian border in an attack using heavy weapons. One
resident said 10 people were killed on Tuesday. People fled to seek
shelter in mountain caves.
Security analysts say it is unclear what will happen if the Libyan
leader digs in, especially since Western powers have made it clear they
would be unwilling to see Libya partitioned between a rebel-held east
and Gaddafi-controlled west.
Rebels in east Libya were stuck just outside Ajdabiyah on Tuesday,
making no advance on the strategic town despite three nights of Western
air strikes on the oil-producing state.
At the front line in the desert scrub about 5 km (3 miles) outside the
town, gateway to the rebel-held east, fighters said air strikes were
helping to cripple Gaddafi's heavy armor.
When asked why rebel units had not advanced, Ahmed al-Aroufi, a rebel
fighter at the front line, told Reuters: "Gaddafi has tanks and trucks
Commenting on the air campaign to protect civilians in this uprising
against Gaddafi's 41-year rule, Aroufi said: "We don't depend on anyone
but God, not France or America. We started this revolution without them
through the sweat of our own brow, and that is how we will finish it."
But sheltering from tank fire behind sand dunes near Ajdabiyah, rebel
fighters lack leadership, experience and any clear plan of action. One
fighter, Mohamed Bhreka, asked who was in command, shrugged and said:
"Nobody is. We are volunteers. We just come here. There is no plan."
With Western allies reluctant to send in ground forces, it was unclear
whether such a disorganized group can dislodge tanks concealed from the
air amongst densely packed towns.
Washington, wary of being drawn into another war after long campaigns in
Iraq and Afghanistan, has ruled out specific action to overthrow
Gaddafi, although France said on Monday it hoped the Libyan government
would collapse from within.Coordinating role for NATO
US President Barack Obama on Tuesday won British and French support for a
NATO role in the air campaign with Washington wanting to cede
operational control within days.
One US official said Washington believed NATO would effectively have to
take operational, if not political, control due to its superior command
"They are still looking at NATO," one US official said, speaking on
condition of anonymity. "It could be a subtle NATO lead but still a NATO
French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said France and the United
States had agreed on how to use NATO command structures but did not
agree any further details.
France and Britain have agreed to put together a "political steering
body" of foreign ministers of countries participating in the coalition
and the Arab League which would meet in the next few days in Brussels,
London or Paris and hold regular meetings, French Foreign Minister Alain
Juppe told parliament.
Two Qatari fighters and two 17 transport aircraft landed in Crete on
Tuesday and the US military said the aircraft would be "up and flying"
over Libya by the weekend. That will be the first direct outside Arab
involvement in the operation.
Four more Qatari aircraft and 24 UAE warplanes were also expected in Crete on their way to a forward base in Sicily.
In Tripoli, Reuters correspondents said some residents, emboldened by a
third night of air strikes, dropped their customary praise of Gaddafi
and said they wanted him gone.
"My children are afraid but I know it's changing," one man said. "This is the end. The government has no control any more."