TRIPOLI (AFP) – Coalition forces launched a seventh day of air strikes against the regime of Libya’s Moamer Kadhafi on Friday in the NATO-led campaign which France’s military chief predicted would last “weeks”.
NATO agreed to take control of a no-fly zone over Libya to thwart Kadhafi loyalists while British and French warplanes targeted his ground forces in the strategic eastern town of Ajdabiya.
“We are taking action as part of a broad international effort to protect civilians against the Kadhafi regime,” said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
He underlined that NATO’s role was limited to enforcing the no-fly zone, but a senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity in Washington, said the 28-member alliance reached a “political agreement” to command all other operations aimed at protecting civilians — meaning strikes against Kadhafi’s ground forces.
The news came as anti-aircraft fire raked the Libyan skies overnight, with at least three explosions shaking the capital and its eastern suburb of Tajura, AFP journalists reported.
At least one blast was heard from the centre of the city, while others came from Tajura, home to military bases, an AFP journalist reported.
Britain’s Defence Secretary Liam Fox said Friday that Tornado jets launched missiles overnight at Libyan armoured vehicles in Ajdabiya, 860 kilometres (530 miles) from Tripoli.
“The Tornado aircraft launched a number of guided Brimstone missiles at Libyan armoured vehicles which were threatening the civilian population of Ajdabiya,” Fox said.
A French fighter jet also destroyed an artillery battery overnight outside Ajdabiya, which was still in rebel hands, said France’s defence chief Admiral Edouard Guillaud, noting the allied operation would not drag on for months.
“I doubt that it will be (over) in days, I think it will be weeks, and I hope it won’t be in months,” he told France Info radio station on Friday.
Rebels fighting to retake Ajdabiya, which sits at a junction on roads leading from rebel strongholds Benghazi and Tobruk, were being held off by loyalist armoured vehicles at the gates of the town.
On Thursday, a Kadhafi fighter plane that had dared to flout the no-fly zone was swiftly punished Thursday when a French fighter destroyed the jet after it landed in Misrata, some 214 kilometres (132 miles) east of Tripoli.
Libyan state television said “civilian and military sites in Tripoli and Tajura” had come under fire from “long-range missiles.”
Fighting also raged in rebel-held Misrata. A doctor treating the wounded at a hospital said attacks by Kadhafi forces since March 18 “have killed 109 people and wounded 1,300 others, 81 of whom are in serious condition.”
Coalition air strikes since Saturday have been targeting air defences in a bid to protect civilians under the terms of a UN resolution.
The strikes also provide cover for a rag-tag band of rebels seeking to oust Kadhafi after more than four decades in power, but who are disorganised and out-gunned by pro-regime forces.
Washington has urged the Libyan military to ignore Kadhafi’s orders.
“Our message is simple: stop fighting, stop killing your own people, stop obeying the orders of Colonel Kadhafi,” Vice Admiral William Gortney said.
“It’s fair to say the coalition is growing in both size and capability every day,” he said, adding “more than 350 aircraft are involved in some capacity. Only slightly more than half belong to the United States.”
The Pentagon said 12 countries were now taking part in the coalition seeking to enforce the no-fly zone — including two Arab nations, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which announced it would contribute 12 aircraft in the coming days.
Allied diplomats spent the day negotiating how to coordinate the campaign against Kadhafi.
“We have agreed, along with our NATO allies, to transition command and control for the no-fly zone over Libya to NATO,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, speaking after meeting with President Barack Obama and the US national security team.
“All 28 allies have also now authorised military authorities to develop an operations plan for NATO to take on the broader civilian protection mission under Resolution 1973.”
Clinton said “significant progress” had been made in just five days, but that the “danger is far from over,” and Kadhafi’s forces “remain a serious threat to the safety of the people.”
She also underscored “crucial” Arab support for the operation, and praised Qatar and the Emirates for joining the coalition.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy meanwhile said coordination of the international campaign must “remain eminently political” even if NATO takes military command. That would enable non-NATO members, such as Arab partners, to take part in political decision-making, he said.
African countries were meeting Friday in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to discuss the Libyan crisis with delegates from Libya, the European Union, the United Nations, the Arab League and the Islamic Conference.
“The aim is to foster an exchange of views in order to take action on the situation in Libya and to seek the ways and means towards a swift solution to the crisis,” African Union Commission Chairman Jean Ping said.
The EU leaders in a statement also urged the world community to tighten the noose on Kadhafi by ensuring Libya’s oil and gas revenues “do not reach” his regime.
Tightening sanctions on oil and gas was necessary “to ensure Kadhafi does not pay his mercenaries with oil resources,” Sarkozy said.
A government spokesman in Tripoli said almost 100 civilians had been killed since coalition air strikes began Saturday, a figure that could not be independently confirmed.
The US general in charge of the operation, General Carter Ham, said coalition forces imposing the no-fly zone “cannot be sure” there have been no civilian deaths, but are trying to be “very precise.”