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Libyan Air Force 'Unable To Fight,' But Attacks On Rebels Continue

March 24, 2011

Fighting is continuing in Libya for key cities after a fifth night of coalition air strikes.

The U.S. Africa Command said 14 Tomahawk missiles were fired at loyalist targets over the past 24 hours.

Western warplanes reportedly struck the strategic city of Shaba today, some 800 kilometers south of Tripoli, while a French fighter jet shot down a Libyan warplane over the besieged rebel city of Misurata.

Fighting was also under way in rebel-held Ajdabiyah, south of the main anti-Qaddafi stronghold of Benghazi.

Several explosions were heard overnight as antiaircraft fire lit up the sky in Tripoli, where coalition aircraft reportedly hit a fuel depot.

Witnesses also reported a huge blast at a military base in the Tajura neighborhood east of the capital.

The official JANA news agency said coalition raids on Tajura killed "a large number" of civilians, while Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim late on March 23 pleaded for a halt of the aerial bombardment.

There were also reports of government tanks pounding an area near the hospital in the rebel-held western city of Misurata, while snipers loyal to Qaddafi were said to be firing indiscriminately.

Witnesses had earlier said tanks around the besieged city had pulled back from their positions under air assault from international forces.

Air Strikes 'As Long As Necessary'

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said today that coalition air strikes against Libya had been a "success" and would "continue as long as necessary."

Juppe told RTL that there had been no reports of civilian casualties caused by allied action, adding that the strikes were "only targeting military sites and nothing else."

Juppe said Libya's military potential was largely destroyed. "All antiaircraft defenses -- or most part -- have been neutralized," he said, though he conceded the Libyan military still had ground capabilities and cannons.

Earlier, the U.S. chief of staff for the mission in Libya said no Libyan aircraft had attempted to fly over the previous 24 hours.

Speaking from the command ship USS Mount Whitney in the Mediterranean, Rear Admiral Gerard Hueber said the coalition's air strikes were "putting pressure on Qaddafi's ground forces that are threatening cities."

The targets include mechanized forces, mobile surface-to-air missile sites, and supply lines.

Hueber added that allied aircraft had flown 175 sorties in the previous 24 hours -- 113 of them by U.S. planes.

Who's Leading This Action?

The comments came as NATO members continued to debate who should lead the mission, with Washington saying it wants to give up its lead role in Libya in a "matter of days."

The United States, France, and Britain have agreed that NATO should play a "key role," but the assent of all 28 NATO states is needed.

Turkey says it doesn't want NATO to take responsibility for offensive operations that could cause civilian casualties or be in charge of enforcing the UN-mandated no-fly zone while coalition aircraft were simultaneously bombing Libyan forces.

NATO's top military commander, U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, was in Ankara today to discuss Turkey's reluctance about Libya.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned on March 23 that the rules of engagement in Libya must be restricted to protecting civilians, enforcing the arms embargo and no-fly zone, and the provision of humanitarian aid.

Meanwhile, ships from NATO members have started patrolling off the Libyan coast to enforce a UN arms embargo against Qaddafi's government. Turkey is taking part of the naval blockade.

compiled from agency reports

Source: unable_to_fight/2348314.html

Copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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