Benghazi, Libya French fighter jets hit aircraft and a crossroads military base deep inside Libya on Thursday as the U.S. reduced its combat role in the international operation that is working to thwart Moammar Gadhafi’s forces by land, sea and air.
Explosions could be heard in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, before daybreak today, apparently from airstrikes.
Libya’s air force has been effectively neutralized, and the government has taken part of its fight to the airwaves. State television aired pictures of bodies it said were victims of airstrikes, but a U.S. intelligence report bolstered rebel claims that Gadhafi’s forces had simply taken bodies from a morgue.
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 raised pressure on rebel forces. So 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,” said 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.”
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.
NATO assumes control
Representatives for the regime and rebels were expected to attend an African Union meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, today, according to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who described it as a part of an effort to reach a cease-fire and political solution.
The U.S. has been trying to give up the lead role in the operation against Gadhafi’s forces, and NATO agreed late Thursday to assume one element of it — control of the no-fly zone.
The U.S.-led coalition will still supervise attacks on targets on the ground, though fewer U.S. planes were used in airstrikes Thursday.
“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. Other countries were handling less than 10 percent of such missions, he said.
The U.S. will continue to fly combat missions as needed, but its role will mainly be in support missions such as refueling allied planes and providing aerial surveillance of Libya, Gortney said.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the international action would last days or possibly weeks, but not months. But he told RTL radio that in addition to protecting civilians, the mission “is also about putting Gadhafi’s opponents, who are fighting for democracy and freedom, in a situation of taking back the advantage.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United Arab Emirates would deploy 12 planes for the coalition effort. Clinton thanked the U.A.E. for becoming the second Arab country after Qatar to send planes.
Qatar is expected to start flying air patrols over Libya by this weekend.
Libyan state television showed 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 place them at the scene of the bomb damage, to be displayed 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.
The French strikes hit a base about 155 miles south of the Libyan coastline, as well as a Libyan combat plane that had just landed outside the strategic city of Misrata, France’s military said.
Briefing reporters in Tripoli late Thursday, Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said no Libyan planes have been in the air since the no-fly zone was declared. He said a plane might have been destroyed in an allied attack on an air base.