Coalition Strikes Hand Libyan Rebels Momentum
Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:03 am
The four-day air assault in Libya will soon achieve the objectives of establishing a no-fly zone and averting a massacre of civilians by Moammar Gadhafi's troops, President Obama said Tuesday, adding that despite squabbling among allies, the United States will hand off control of the operation to other countries within days.
"When this transition takes place, it is not going to be our planes that are maintaining the no-fly zone. It is not going to be our ships that are necessarily enforcing the arms embargo. That's precisely what the other nations are going to do," the president said at a news conference in El Salvador as he neared the end of a Latin American trip overshadowed by events in Libya.
Obama said he has "absolutely no doubt" that a non-U.S. command entity can run the operation, although perhaps the most obvious candidate — the NATO military alliance — has yet to sort out a political agreement to do so. The president said NATO was meeting to "work out some of the mechanisms."
Obama spoke as one senior American military official said the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar was expected to start flying air patrols over Libya by this weekend, becoming the first member of the Arab League to participate directly in the military mission. Obama and NATO had insisted from the start on Arab support.
Meanwhile, Libyan TV broadcast what it said was a brief live address by Gadhafi before supporters at his encampment near Tripoli, the Libyan capital. He was shown standing on a balcony before a crowd of supporters.
Denouncing the coalition bombing attacks on his forces, he said, "In the short term, we'll beat them, in the long term, we'll beat them."
The state TV said Gadhafi was speaking from his Bab Al-Aziziya residential compound, the same one hit by a cruise missile Sunday night. It would be his first public appearance in a week,
U.S. Jet Goes Down Near Benghazi
The Marine Corps, meanwhile, offered fresh details of its role in the rescue of an Air Force F-15E pilot who ejected over eastern Libya on Monday. The plane's weapons system officer, who also ejected and made it safely back to U.S. control, was recovered in a separate operation not involving the Marines.
Unconfirmed reports from Libya said a number of civilians were wounded, apparently during the pilot rescue, but the circumstances were murky.
A senior Marine Corps officer at the Pentagon, speaking on condition of anonymity because the crash was under investigation, said that during the course of the rescue two 500-pound bombs were dropped by Marine AV-8B Harrier jets.
The officer said the bombs were requested by the downed pilot, who reported concern that possibly hostile forces were approaching. The officer said it was unclear what the two bombs hit.
The pilot was picked up by an MV-22 Osprey aircraft that flew — along with a second Osprey, two CH-53E helicopters and two Harriers — from aboard the USS Kearsarge.
Asked about the incident, Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of the joint task force for Operation Odyssey Dawn, said by satellite that "collateral damage" sometimes happens during such missions. But, he added, "the recovery mission from my perspective was executed as I would have expected it to be, given the circumstances."
One of the doctors who examined the pilot in Benghazi told NPR that the airman's injuries were minimal. Dr. Dina Omar said the pilot was initially reluctant to talk but, after a few hours, began joking about whether his doctors were with Gadhafi or the rebels.
"I have to trust you because if you're with Gadhafi .. you're a good actor," Omar said, relaying the pilot's words.
Locklear also said that Gadhafi's forces were attacking civilians in the western city of Misurata.
"My intelligence tells me that there are Gadhafi forces in Misurata. They are conducting attacks against civilians" there in violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone, he told journalists via satellite from the USS Mount Whitney.
"I'm not going to talk about future operations, but I am aware of it and we are considering all options as we look across the entire country of Libya," he said.
Gadhafi's forces bombarded Misurata, and his tanks and snipers roamed the streets, a doctor there told The Associated Press. The doctor, who asked that his name not be used, said civilians were desperately searching for shelter and food.
"Snipers are everywhere in Misurata, shooting anyone who walks by while the world is still watching. There is no protection for civilians," he said.
NPR's David Greene also said there were reports of government attacks on civilians in Misurata — the sole western city held by rebels — but he said "the government has not explained that."
The U.S. and European air campaign targeting Gadhafi's defenses has halted government troops' advance and handed some momentum back to rebel fighters who were on the verge of defeat just last week.
Libyan rebels also fought Gadhafi's troops on the outskirts of the key eastern city of Ajdabiya on Tuesday, struggling to exploit the Western strikes that have smashed the regime's air defenses.
Gadhafi's forces shelled rebels regrouping in the desert dunes outside Ajdabiya, which lies 500 miles east of Tripoli. The government remained in control of the main road leading into the city, NPR's Eric Westervelt reported.
"The rebels have not been able to take advantage of the airstrikes yet to push deeper into Ajdabiya," Westervelt said. He said the road was littered with burned-out tanks, armored personnel carriers and pieces of artillery.
"The rebels we've talked to say they still need a lot of help — heavier weapons, night vision equipment, communications gear," he said. "They are still just driving forward in pickup trucks, sometimes taking orders from a commander speaking into a loudspeaker."
In the capital, anti-aircraft tracer rounds lighted up the sky for a fourth night in a row as Gadhafi supporters honked car horns to show support, NPR's Greene said.
He said it wasn't clear whether the anti-aircraft fire was just for show or a response to coalition air- or missile strikes. But Greene said several targets were hit in the city when anti-aircraft fire rang out Monday night and that he was among a group of journalists taken to a naval base Tuesday "that was obviously decimated."
Greene also noted that the mood in Tripoli has changed since the coalition strikes began.
"People in Tripoli who don't support Col. Gadhafi are coming out a little more," he said. "We were in the ... old shopping district ... in downtown Tripoli, and for the first time people were coming up to journalists eagerly to say, 'We don't like Gadhafi.' "
France said Tuesday it agreed with the United States that NATO should have a role in the military operations — an issue that had threatened to split the coalition.
A statement issued in Paris said that President Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke Tuesday and "agreed on the modalities of using the structures of the NATO command to support the coalition."
Separately, British Prime Minister David Cameron's office said that he and Obama also agreed that NATO should play a key role in commanding the military campaign.
NATO diplomats meeting for a second day agreed to use sea power to help enforce a U.N arms embargo on Libya. But the organizations' members continued to debate the much more difficult issue of whether the alliance would coordinate enforcement of the no-fly zone.
Disagreement over whether NATO should coordinate the military operation had threatened to split the coalition. Officials in some countries said they would not participate without NATO, though others said the alliance's standing is poor in the Muslim world because of its involvement in the war in Afghanistan.
Italy's foreign minister, Franco Frattini, warned that if NATO does not take the reins of the operation, Rome will not allow the continued use of seven air bases it authorized for the mission.
Sweden, though not a NATO member, said it will await a solution to the coordination issue before deciding whether to participate in the mission.
Spain's Parliament voted Tuesday to join the no-fly coalition, which consists of the U.S., Britain, France, Canada, Italy, Belgium and Qatar. Madrid is contributing four F-18 fighter jets, a Boeing 707 refueling plane, a submarine, a frigate and a maritime surveillance plane. As many as 500 Spanish soldiers will take part in the operation.
French Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Philippe Ponties said Tuesday that the coalition operations "are going on well, in accordance with the plans and the goals decided by the international community via the vote of the U.N. resolution."
He tried to walk a line between a single country or entity, such as NATO, taking command and the current ad hoc arrangement.
"Without a single command center, we see that this coordination works very well and gives satisfaction," Ponties said. "But of course, working in a coordinated way facilitates planning and supervision of the operations a great deal."
Doubts On Military Intervention
African leaders have reacted with unease to the coalition airstrikes on Libya.
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe said it was a mistake for Africa to support the U.N. Security Council resolution.
Although South Africa voted for the resolution, South African President Jacob Zuma, a member of the African Union's presidential panel on Libya, expressed concern about the aims of the operation.
"As South Africa we say no to the killing of civilians," he said. "We say no to the regime change doctrine and no to the foreign occupation of Libya or any other sovereign state."
Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, accused Western nations of applying a double standard to Libya.
Museveni said the West rushed to impose a no-fly zone, but has turned a blind eye to similar situations in Bahrain and other with pro-Western nations.
With reporting from NPR's David Greene in Tripoli; Eric Westervelt in eastern Libya; Rachel Martin in Moscow; Eleanor Beardsley in Paris; Ofeibea Quist-Arcton in Dakar, Senegal; and Lisa Schlein in Brussels. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.