Rebels close in on oil town as NATO set to take charge
TRIPOLI – Rebels battled on to the eastern oil town of Ajdabiya Thursday as plans firmed for NATO to take over coalition operations after Tripoli came under attack for a sixth day and death tolls mounted.
France promised to continue air raids “for as long as necessary,” and Italy offered to increase its participation in the coalition operation.
Military officials announced French warplanes had struck a Libyan base overnight and blasts and anti-aircraft fire rattled the Libyan capital before dawn.
NATO was preparing for a fresh round of talks to resolve the squabble over transferring command of military operations from a US-led coalition to the 28-nation alliance.
And Turkey’s parliament approved sending a naval force off Libya as the Islamist-rooted government moved reluctantly to join the military action despite anger at the Western-led air raids.
French warplanes attacked an air base 250 kilometres (150 miles) inland from the Mediterranean coast overnight, military officials said Thursday at a news conference.
Italy could offer warships and more planes for operations in Libya in addition to four Tornado bombers and four F-16 fighter jets it has already deployed, the defence minister said.
Rebels were fighting to retake Ajdabiya from troops loyal to Moamer Kadhafi, an AFP journalist witnessed.
Shelling and gunfire could be heard at a rebel outpost nine kilometres (five miles) from the oil city where hundreds of fighters amassed in the morning before marching forward.
“They are shooting at us with tanks, artillery and Grad missiles,” said Mohammed, a rebel returning from the frontline. “We have nothing but light weapons whereas they have heavy ones.”
The rebels, whose weapons range from Kalashnikov assault rifles to knives, are trying to enter the city from several fronts and managed to get within one kilometre of Ajdabiya’s eastern entrance, said Mohammed.
Tanks guarded the northern and western entrances.
Heavy fighting on Wednesday forced residents to flee en masse.
There were also reports from the southern stronghold of Sebha that the coalition had carried out intensive air raids on the town, bastion of Kadhafi’s Guededfa tribe and site of an important military base.
Fighting also raged in rebel-held Misrata, where a medic said at least 109 people have been killed and more than 1,300 wounded in a week of assaults by Kadhafi’s forces.
“Attacks by Kadhafi forces since last Friday have killed 109 people and wounded 1,300 others, 81 of whom are in serious condition,” said the doctor working in the state hospital in Misrata, 214 kilometres (132 miles) east of Tripoli.
Fresh air raids on Thursday shook Tajura, a residential neighbourhood 32 kilometres (20 miles) east of the capital, with coalition forces targeting Libyan military bases, according to witnesses.
The official JANA news agency said “military and civilian sites from Tripoli to Tajura continue to be the target of raids by the aggressive and colonialist crusade.”
A government spokesman in Tripoli said almost 100 civilians had been killed since the coalition air strikes began on Saturday, giving a provisional toll which could not be independently confirmed.
The US general in charge of the operation said coalition forces imposing the no-fly zone “cannot be sure” there have been no civilian deaths from bombings but are trying to be “very precise.”
General Carter Ham, head of US Africa Command, also said that Libya’s air defence sites “essentially no longer exist” because of the air strikes and that coalition forces are now targeting Libyan troops attacking civilians.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Thursday that coalition air strikes against Libya had been a “success” and would “continue for as long as necessary,” adding that it was a question “of days and weeks… but not months.”
“We will continue with the air strikes,” Juppe told RTL radio. The strikes were “only targeting military sites and nothing else.”
Juppe added that France favoured handing responsibility for implementing a UN-approved “no-fly” zone to NATO.
At the same time, however, the coalition led by the United States, France and Britain should maintain political control over the campaign, especially strikes against military installations, he said.
NATO ambassadors were to meet again in Brussels after the latest efforts to reach agreement on the transfer of authority ended in stalemate, partly because Turkey says the coalition bombings must stop first, a diplomat said.
Despite the row, NATO has drawn up the outlines of what its command structure would look like if and when it takes over the no-fly zone, another alliance diplomat said.
Several NATO allies including Britain and Italy want the alliance to run the campaign, but France insists political control should be handed to an international coalition including Arab states.
Paris argues that flying the mission under NATO’s flag would alienate Arab allies suspicious of the Western military machine.
A compromise currently under discussion would allow countries opposed to the strikes, such as Turkey, to opt out of such operations while others could take part in the attacks, diplomats said.
Italy’s Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa said that a naval flotilla composed of the aircraft carrier Garibaldi and three other warships as well as some Eurofighters and F-16s, two more Tornadoes and a C-130 military transport plane could bolster the force under NATO.
Italy has threatened to take back control of the seven air bases it has offered for no-fly zone operations if NATO command is not agreed.
The F-16 warplanes sent by Norway to take part in operations over Libya carried out their first mission on Thursday, the country’s armed forces said.
As there is no unified command, Norway said on Wednesday its F-16s would be placed under US command while retaining the right to look at the nature of the tasks entrusted to them.