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Wednesday 22 October  

Libya rebels close in on oil town as NATO set to take charge

Published on 25 March 2011 - 12:10am
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Libyan rebels said on Thursday they were negotiating the surrender of Moamer Kadhafi forces in the flashpoint town of Ajdabiya as NATO was set to take command of the coalition campaign early next week.

The capital came under attack for a sixth straight day since British, French and US forces launched air and sea attacks on Kadhafi forces in Libya, where the death toll in both the rebel and the loyalist camps mounted.

NATO was due to take command of the campaign on Monday or Tuesday, a diplomat said in Brussels, while in Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also announced an imminent takeover by the 28-nation alliance.

Washington, meanwhile, urged the Libyan military to stop obeying Kadhafi's orders and said more than 350 aircraft were taking part in coalition operations.

"Our message is simple: stop fighting, stop killing your own people, stop obeying the orders of Colonel Kadhafi," Vice Admiral William Gortney said.

"It's fair to say the coalition is growing in both size and capability every day," said Vice Admiral William Gortney.

He said "more than 350 aircraft are involved in some capacity. Only slightly more than half belong to the United States."

On Thursday a French fighter destroyed a Kadhafi regime warplane just after it landed in the city of Misrata east of Tripoli, the French military said.

The Rafale jet, one of about 20 French planes flying over Libyan airspace, fired an air-to-surface AASM missile at the Libyan aircraft, which had been detected by a US AWACS surveillance plane.

Six Dutch F-16s, meanwhile, landed at the Decimomannu base in Sardinia to carry out surveillance flights and collect information about air traffic to Libya to enforce an arms embargo, the Dutch defence ministry said.

And F-16 warplanes sent by Norway carried out their first mission on Thursday, the country's armed forces said.

Anti-aircraft fire opened up over Tripoli late on Thursday, with at least three explosions shaking Tripoli and its eastern suburb of Tajura, AFP journalists said.

At least one blast was heard from the centre of the city, while others came from Tajura -- home to military bases -- and a column of smoke rose from an undetermined location, an AFP journalist said.

State television reported that "civilian and military sites in Tripoli and Tajura" had come under fire from "long-range missiles."

Anti-aircraft fire and explosions also rattled the coastal city of Sirte, Kadhafi's home town 600 kilometres (370 miles) east of Tripoli, a resident said.

A Libyan government spokesman earlier said the regime expected coalition warplanes to target telecommunications centres and the state radio station, based on "intelligence" received in Tripoli.

Kadhafi forces continued to lay siege Thursday to the cities of Misrata and Zentan, both east of Tripoli, while rebels fought to retake the oil city of Ajdabiya which sits at a junction on roads leading from rebel strongholds Benghazi and Tobruk in eastern Libya.

Rebels were in striking distance of Ajdabiya, an AFP journalist said, with shelling and gunfire heard nine kilometres (five miles) from the city where hundreds of fighters massed in the morning before marching forward.

"They are shooting at us with tanks, artillery and Grad missiles," said Mohammed, a rebel returning from the frontline. "We have nothing but light weapons whereas they have heavy ones."

Later in the day rebel army spokesman Ahmed Omar Bani told his first news conference that insurgents were negotiating the surrender of Kadhafi loyalists in Ajdabiya.

"Some of the Ajdabiya militias have asked to surrender," said the air force general in Benghazi. "We are trying to negotiate with these people in Ajdabiya because we are almost sure that they have lost contact with the headquarters."

There were also reports from the southern stronghold of Sebha that the coalition had carried out intensive air raids on the town, bastion of Kadhafi's Guededfa tribe and site of an important military base.

Fighting also raged in rebel-held Misrata, where a medic said at least 109 people have been killed and more than 1,300 wounded in a week of assaults by Kadhafi's forces.

"Attacks by Kadhafi forces since last Friday have killed 109 people and wounded 1,300 others, 81 of whom are in serious condition," said the doctor working in the state hospital in Misrata, 214 kilometres (132 miles) east of Tripoli.

A government spokesman in Tripoli said almost 100 civilians had been killed since the coalition air strikes began on Saturday, giving a provisional toll which could not be independently confirmed.

The US general in charge of the operation said coalition forces imposing the no-fly zone "cannot be sure" there have been no civilian deaths from bombings but are trying to be "very precise."

General Carter Ham, head of US Africa Command, also said that Libya's air defence sites "essentially no longer exist" because of the air strikes and that coalition forces are now targeting Libyan troops attacking civilians.

Meanwhile UN chief Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council that Kadhafi's troops were ignoring the UN ceasefire order and that human rights abuses continued in the north African country.

"We continue to have serious concerns about protection of civilians," he said.

On Thursday Russian President Dmitry Medvedev telephoned US President Barack Obama, urging him to avoid civilian casualties in Libya and limit the international campaign to the goals set by the United Nations.

Russia abstained from last week's vote authorising the no-fly zone.

Greece, meanwhile, said it was time for a diplomatic solution as EU leaders headed into a summit hoping to resolve differences concerning military action against Kadhafi's regime.

Germany, which refused to vote for UN Resolution 1973, on Thursday called for a "total" oil embargo on Libya.

But Foreign Minister Alain Juppe of France, which had pushed hard to secure the UN resolution, said Thursday that coalition air strikes would "continue for as long as necessary."

A diplomat said, meanwhile, that "NATO countries are in agreement to launch final planning enabling it to take over the command from the coalition Monday or Tuesday."

Italy, which has been pushing for a NATO command, said it could offer warships and more planes for the operation, including the aircraft carrier Garibaldi, Eurofighters and F-16s.

In a reluctant move, Turkey's parliament approved sending a naval force off Libya despite the Islamist-rooted government's anger at the Western-led air raids.

Meanwhile coalition military action was to be at the centre of a meeting on Tuesday in London, attended by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her colleagues from Britain, France among other nations.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said participants at the meeting would form a "contact group of nations" to advance efforts to stop Kadhafi's forces killing civilians.

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