Gadhafi forces retreat in west
BENGHAZI, Libya — NATO ships began patrolling off Libya’s coast on Wednesday as airstrikes, missiles and energized rebels forced Moammar Gadhafi’s tanks to roll back from two key western cities, including one that was the hometown of army officers who tried to overthrow him in 1993.
Libya’s opposition took haphazard steps to form a government in the east as they and the U.S.-led force protecting them girded for prolonged and costly fighting. Despite disorganization among the rebels — and confusion over who would ultimately run the international operation — coalition airstrikes and missiles seemed to thwart Gadhafi’s efforts to rout his opponents, at least for now.
Coalition aircraft hit a fuel depot in Tripoli, a senior government official told reporters in a late-night news conference. Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim at first denied reports that Gadhafi’s compound in Tripoli was hit earlier, then backtracked and said he had no information about that. Other targets were near Benghazi and Misrata, he said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged there is no clear end to the international military enforcement of the no-fly zone over Libya, but President Obama said it “absolutely” will not lead to a U.S. land invasion.
From Ajdabiya in the east to Misrata in the west, the coalition’s targets included Libyan troops’ mechanized forces, mobile surface-to-air missile sites and lines of communications that supply “their beans and their bullets,” said Rear Adm. Gerard Hueber, a top U.S. officer in the campaign in Libya.
Hueber asserted that Gadhafi’s air force has essentially been defeated. He said no Libyan aircraft had attempted to fly over the previous 24 hours.
“Those aircraft have either been destroyed or rendered inoperable,” Hueber told Pentagon reporters by phone from the U.S. command ship in the Mediterranean Sea.
A doctor in Misrata said Gadhafi’s tanks fled after the airstrikes, giving a much-needed reprieve to the besieged coastal city, which is inaccessible to human rights monitors or journalists. The airstrikes struck the aviation academy and a vacant lot outside the central hospital, the doctor said.
“Today, for the first time in a week, the bakeries opened their doors,” the doctor said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals if Gadhafi’s forces take Libya’s third-largest city, 125 miles southeast of Tripoli.
Neither the rebels nor Gadhafi has mustered the force for an outright victory, raising concerns of a prolonged conflict.
Gates said no one was ever under any illusion that the assault would last just two or three weeks. He had no answer when asked about a possible stalemate if Gadhafi hunkers down, and the coalition lacks United Nations authorization to target him.
Obama, when asked about an exit strategy during an interview with the Spanish-language network Univision, did not lay out a vision for ending the international action, but rather said: “The exit strategy will be executed this week in the sense that we will be pulling back from our much more active efforts to shape the environment.”
The Obama administration wants others to lead the way soon: Gates said the United States could relinquish control as soon as Saturday. Members of the coalition, however, were still divided over the details.
In a compromise proposal, NATO would be guided by a political committee of foreign ministers from the West and the Arab world. But NATO nations remained deadlocked over the alliance’s possible role in enforcing the U.N.-authorized no-fly zone.
NATO warships, meanwhile, started patrolling yesterday to enforce the U.N. arms embargo against Libya. Alliance spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the action was to “cut off the flow of arms and mercenaries,” activity that intelligence reports say is continuing.
Six vessels were involved on the first day, and Canada’s Brig. General Pierre St. Amand said 16 ships have been offered by NATO members. Five are from Turkey, the organization’s sole Muslim member.
Missiles fired from submarines in the Mediterranean Sea, bombs dropped by B-2 stealth bombers and an array of airstrikes easily totaled hundreds of millions of dollars by the fifth day of the coalition campaign.
Hueber said international forces were attacking government troops that have been storming population centers. Yesterday evening, Libyan state television reported a “Crusader colonialist bombing targeting certain civil and military locations” in Tripoli’s Tajoura district — scene of some of the heaviest past protests against Gadhafi.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Gadhafi can end the crisis quickly — by leaving power. She said the United States wants the Libyan government to “make the right decision” by instituting a cease-fire, withdrawing forces from cities and preparing for a transition that does not include the longtime dictator.
Some attacks by pro-Gadhafi forces continued in Misrata, where the doctor and rebel leaders said pro-Gadhafi snipers were firing on civilians from rooftops. Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, a spokesman for the opposition forces, said 16 people were killed today, including five children.
Ghoga said people are being treated “in the hallways of buildings” because they did not dare go outside.
In Zintan, a city of 100,000 about 75 miles south of Tripoli, a resident said Gadhafi’s forces were shelling from the foot of a nearby mountain, but rebels forced their retreat from all but one side of the city. After five days of fighting, Ali al-Azhari said, rebel fighters captured or destroyed several tanks and seized trucks loaded with 1,200 Grad missiles and fuel tanks. They captured five Gadhafi troops.
Al-Azhari, who spoke to The Associated Press by phone from the city, said one officer told rebels that he was ordered “to turn Zintan into a desert to be smashed and flattened.” Resentment against Gadhafi runs high in Zintan because it was the hometown of many of the detained army officers who took part in a failed coup in 1993.
Ghoga said 16 people died Tuesday and Wednesday in Zintan, which has no electricity or landlines.