A Libyan supporter of Moammar Gadhafi stands amid the wreckage of what was described as a maintenance warehouse at a naval base in Tripoli that was hit by coalition missiles.
A Libyan supporter of Moammar Gadhafi stands amid the wreckage of what was described as a maintenance warehouse at a naval base in Tripoli that was hit by coalition missiles. Jerome Delay/AP
NATO ships patrolled off Libya's coast 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 fighting. Despite disorganization among the rebels — and confusion over who would ultimately run the international operation — the airstrikes and missiles seemed to have their intended effect in Libya, at least for now.
- Coalition airstrikes targeted Moammar Gadhafi's ground forces near the western city of Misrata, forcing a tank column to pull back from the fighting. A U.S. Navy commander said intelligence reports show pro-government troops have been carrying out attacks on civilians there.
- The rebels' provisional government in Benghazi said an estimated 54 people have been killed in Misrata since Monday.
- Gadhafi made his first public appearance since coalition airstrikes began over the weekend, calling the U.S.-European alliance "fascists" and urging Libyans to fight on.
- NATO warships began enforcing an arms embargo on Libyan in the waters off the country's Mediterranean coast. The alliance also was working on a plan that could allow the U.S. to pass off command and control of a no-fly zone over Libya.
- In an interview with the Spanish-language network Univision, President Obama said it was "absolutely" out of the question that U.S. ground forces would be brought in.
But the U.S. made clear that others would have to lead the way: Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. could relinquish control as soon as Saturday.
Rear Adm. Gerard Hueber, a top U.S. officer in the campaign in Libya, said international forces were attacking government troops that have been storming population centers. On Wednesday 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.
Fighting In East
From Ajdabiya in the east to Misurata in the west, the coalition's targets included mechanized forces, mobile surface-to-air missile sites and lines of communications that supply "their beans and their bullets," Hueber told Pentagon reporters by phone from the U.S. command ship in the Mediterranean Sea.
NPR's Eric Westervelt, who is in the rebel-held city of Benghazi, told NPR's Robert Siegel that the rebels have been unable to take advantage of the Western airstrikes. Westervelt visited the front lines due south of Benghazi.
"They were actually pushed back a little by pro-Gadhafi forces," he said. "There was fighting around the port area of Zwitina, a strategic oil port just north of Ajdabiya. So they've actually lost ground in the last 24 hours.
"Col. Gadhafi's army still has tanks and artillery and heavy armor ... entrenched in the town of Ajdabiya and they are using to great effect against this lightly armed and disorganized force."
Fighting In West
Meanwhile, a doctor in Misurata said Gadhafi's tanks fled after the airstrikes. The city 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.
He and rebel leaders said pro-Gadhafi snipers continued to fire on civilians from rooftops on Wednesday. Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, a spokesman for the opposition forces, said 16 people were killed Wednesday, including five children.
NPR's David Greene, reporting from Tripoli, told Siegel that the government "says they are going after Islamist extremists who are holed up with civilians in" Misurata. "It's hard to know the truth."
In Zintan, resident Ali al-Azhari 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. He 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.
Concerns About Rebels, War
Resentment against Gadhafi runs high in Zintan, a city of 100,000 about 75 miles south of Tripoli, 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 land lines.
The withdrawal of the tanks from Misurata and Zintan was a rare success for the rebels, who are struggling daily against Gadhafi forces in the eastern gateway city of Ajdabiya. The disorganized opposition holds much of the east but has been unable to take advantage of the international air campaign that saved it from the brink of defeat.
Missiles fired from submarines in the Mediterranean, bombs dropped by B-2 stealth bombers and an array of airstrikes easily total hundreds of millions of dollars for the five-day campaign. Rebels say they are well aware of concerns about who, exactly, the costly campaign is backing.
Those concerns were reflected in Washington where House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told President Obama in a letter that he was troubled "that U.S. military resources were committed to war without clearly defining for the American people, the Congress, and our troops what the mission in Libya is and what America's role is in achieving that mission."
Iman Bughaigis, a spokeswoman for the rebel force, said the tentative beginnings of an interim administration on Wednesday reflected the realization that they needed to get organized. She said the leader of the governing body would be Mahmoud Jibril, a U.S.-educated planning expert who defected from the Gadhafi regime as the uprising gained momentum.
Neither the rebels nor Gadhafi has mustered the force for an outright victory, raising concerns of a prolonged conflict.
Meanwhile, Obama told the Spanish-language network Univision that a land invasion was "absolutely" out of the question.
Asked about the exit strategy, he didn't 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."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. could turn over control of the operation to NATO as early as Saturday.
Also Wednesday, NATO members were hammering out a plan that could allow the United States to pass off operational control of a no-fly zone over Libya. The move would let the United States shift into support functions such as aerial refueling.
A compromise pushed by France, which fired the first shots against Gadhafi over the weekend, would have NATO overseen by a political committee of foreign ministers from the West and the Arab world.
Spain's defense minister, Carme Chacon, was among those who endorsed the proposal. "We are comfortable with that," she said.
The sparse involvement of Arab nations is one of the coalition's biggest worries. British Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament on Wedneaday that Qatar has sent a couple of Mirage jets. He said Kuwait and Jordan are offering logistical help, and and he's been talking to Saudi Arabia. But Cameron said he'd like more.
"I hope further support will be forthcoming but I would be clear about this — because we had to act so quickly on Saturday it wasn't possible to bring forward as much Arab support as perhaps would have been welcomed, I think by everybody in this House," Cameron said.
NPR's David Greene in Tripoli, Eric Westervelt in Benghazi and Philip Reeves in London contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press