8:20am

Fri March 25, 2011
Conflict In Libya

Libyan Airspace Is Declared 'Under Control'

France declared Libya's airspace "under control" on Friday, after NATO agreed to take command of the no-fly zone in a compromise that appeared to set up dual command centers and possibly new confusion.

Representatives for Moammar Gadhafi's regime and the rebels were expected to meet formally for the first time Friday in Ethiopia, in what the U.N. described as a part of an effort to reach a cease-fire and political solution.

Coalition warplanes struck Gadhafi's forces outside the strategic eastern gateway city of Ajdabiya. The overnight French and British strikes on an artillery battery and armored vehicles were intended to give a measure of relief to Ajdabiya, where residents have fled more than a week of shelling and fighting between rebels and government troops.

French military officials said a warplane destroyed an artillery battery Friday, while Britain said its Tornado GR4 aircraft launched a number of guided missiles at Libyan armored vehicles.

Explosions also could be heard in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, before daybreak Friday, apparently from airstrikes.

"Libyan airspace is under control, and we proved it yesterday, because a Libyan plane in the hands of pro-Gadhafi forces, which had just taken off from Misurata in order to bomb Misurata, was destroyed by a French Rafale," Adm. Edouard Guillaud said on France-Info radio.

On Thursday, France's Defense Ministry said on its website that the plane had been destroyed on the ground shortly after landing.

The Associated Press quoted a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity as saying that coalition warships had fired 15 more Tomahawk cruise missiles overnight Thursday.

Planning For NATO Command

NATO's military staff is drawing up detailed plans to assume full control of the no-fly zone over Libya in coming days.

NATO envoys decided late Thursday to maintain the no-fly patrols as authorized by a U.N. Security Council resolution last week. They also instructed the military staff to draw up plans for replacing the coalition air force in carrying out airstrikes against Gadhafi's forces.

An official who asked not to be identified because of NATO rules said the alliance was hoping to launch both operations simultaneously within the next couple of days. NATO's top decision-making body still has to approve the airstrike plans. It meets on Sunday.

The no-fly zone has been in effect for nearly a week, and the U.S. has been eager to turn over command. NPR's Tom Bowman said there are currently two missions: One is to prevent the Libyan air force from attacking civilians; the other is to protect civilians from regime ground troops and safeguard the rebel-held city of Benghazi.

NATO has taken over command of the first mission, but it's still not clear when the alliance will take over the second mission. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said NATO is finalizing plans for that larger role, and American officials expect that to happen by the weekend.

"We are taking the next step. We have agreed along with our NATO allies to transition command and control for the no-fly zone over Libya to NATO," Clinton said. "All 28 allies have also now authorized military authorities to develop an operations plan for NATO to take on the broader civilian protection mission."

The Pentagon indicated U.S. warplanes will keep flying strike missions over Libya.

"Nearly all, some 75 percent, of the combat air patrol missions in support of the no-fly zone are now being executed by our coalition partners," Navy Vice Adm. William Gortney told reporters at the Pentagon. He said other countries were handling less than 10 percent of such missions.

At a NATO meeting in Brussels, British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was in "absolute coordination" with the U.S. position that Gadhafi must go.

He warned that pro-Gadhafi forces and aides to the Libyan leader risked being prosecuted for war crimes if they remained by his side as civilian casualties mounted.

"Don't obey his orders, walk away from your tanks, leave the command and control that you are doing. Give up on his regime because it should be over for him and his henchmen," Cameron said.

Foreign Participation

The foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates said Friday the Gulf federation will deploy 12 planes to help enforce the mission to protect civilians in Libya.

The UAE is the second Arab country after Qatar to send planes to aid the military operation against Gadhafi's regime.

Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan says the UAE committed six F-16s and six Mirage aircraft to "participate in the patrols" over Libya. His comments were published by the state-run WAM news agency on Friday.

Qatar is expected to start flying air patrols by this weekend.

No other members of the 22-member Arab League have publicly committed to taking an active role. The Arab League urged the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.

International military support for the rebels is not open-ended: France set a timeframe on the international action at days or weeks, not months.

The possibility of a looming deadline raises pressure on rebel forces, as does a U.N. arms embargo that keeps both Gadhafi and his outgunned opposition from getting more weapons. The rebels were so strapped Thursday that they handed out sneakers and not guns at one of their checkpoints.

"We are facing cannons, T-72 and T-92 tanks, so what do we need? We need anti-tank weapons, things like that," Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, a military spokesman, told reporters in Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital. "We are preparing our army now. Before there was no army, from now there is an idea to prepare a new army with new armaments and new morals."

"We've talked with our friends around the world and told them we need help," Bani said. "Not troops or advisers — air strikes are enough. ...Our only foreign expert is Google Earth."

Opposition fighters said they've already appealed to some countries for weapons, NPR's Eric Westervelt reported from near Ajdabiya.

"They won't say what countries and they won't say when they'll arrive," he said. "But they are cautiously optimistic that in coming days some of this equipment may arrive."

The Gadhafi regime appeared equally hard-pressed, asking international forces to spare its broadcast and communications infrastructure.

"Communications, whether by phones or other uses, are civilian and for the good of the Libyan nation to help us provide information, knowledge and coordinate everyday life. If these civilian targets are hit, it will make life harder for millions of civilians around Libya," Moussa Ibrahim, a government spokesman, told reporters in Tripoli.

Libyan state television has broadcast images of blackened and mangled bodies that it said were victims of airstrikes in Tripoli. Rebels have accused Gadhafi's forces of taking bodies from the morgue and pretending they were civilian casualties.

A U.S. intelligence report on Monday, the day after coalition missiles attacked Gadhafi's Bab al-Aziziya compound in the capital, said that a senior Gadhafi aide was told to take bodies from a morgue and display them at the scene of the bomb damage for visiting journalists. A senior U.S. defense official revealed the contents of the intelligence report on condition of anonymity because it was classified secret.

U.S. Army Gen. Carter Ham said late Thursday that he couldn't be sure that no civilians have died as the result of coalition operations.

"What I can be sure of is that we have been very, very precise and discriminate in our targeting," he told reporters at a briefing at Sigonella air base in Sicily.

Of the regime's accusations, Ham said, "They don't talk about the thousands of Libyan citizens which they have killed, which we know it is very true."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague went further, declaring emphatically that "there are no confirmed civilian casualties so far from coalition airstrikes." He said civilian casualties are being caused solely by the Gadhafi regime.

Civilians Forced To Flee

In Ajdabiya, rebels were holding the city center but faced relentless shelling from government troops positioned on the outskirts. The city has been under siege for more than a week.

"Any attempts by Gadhafi forces to push farther north from Ajdabiya to [Benghazi] have been repelled by Western airstrikes and rebels on the ground," NPR's Westervelt said. "But fighting continues in and around Ajdabiya, and rebels have been unable to push Gadhafi forces out."

In a report released Friday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said hostilities continued in "several locations" around the country, including Ajdabiya, Misurata and Zintin.

It said the fighting had caused "over 350,000 people to leave the country, an unconfirmed number of civilian casualties and rendered the affected areas virtually unreachable to aid workers."

There were about 1,000 refugees living in the desert outside the largely deserted Ajdabiya, but Benghazi remained fairly secure, Westervelt said.

One woman who fled Ajdabiya with her family said that "soldiers cut electricity, the water, the lights." Houda Ali Abdullah told NPR that her family was one of the last to leave their neighborhood in the besieged city and was now trying to hitch a ride to Benghazi.

"We heard the artillery coming in. I don't know what it was, a rocket or a big bomb ... but I had to take my children and leave," she said.

Ali Abdullah also said one of her brothers was missing; another of her brothers was distraught over their missing sibling.

"Gadhafi is sending people here to kidnap, to disappear, people," he said. "My brother has been missing for 21 days. We have no idea where he is."

With reporting from NPR's Eric Westervelt near Ajdabiya and Tom Bowman in Washington, D.C. Material from The Associated Press was used in this report. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.