Intermittent explosions could be heard starting on Wednesday night local-time and lasting until dawn on Thursday. The sound of anti-aircraft fire was quieter than on other nights, suggesting that coalition forces may have degraded the abilities of Libyan forces in this respect, reports The Wall Street Journal.
A French defense ministry spokesperson Thursday said the French air force overnight attacked and hit a Libyan air base about 250 kilometers south of the Libyan coastline, without giving more detail of the base’s location. The UK fired Tomahawk missiles at air-defense systems from a submarine, a Ministry of Defense spokeswoman said.
In Tripoli, Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khalid Kaim said a microwave tower in the capital’s eastern suburb of Tajura and fuel tanks south of the capital were struck, but offered few details, such as whether there were casualties.
Residents said military installations in Tajura were targeted. They included a base for radar systems and the military-engineering academy, both close to residential areas.
Later in the day, state media broadcast footage from what it said was a base for a unit of the Libyan army’s seventh division in Tajura. A pile of wrecked military vehicles and trucks was shown going up in flames, sending plumes of heavy smoke into the night-time sky. An unnamed military officer at the scene said tanks and missile carriers were among the equipment destroyed.
Libyan foreign ministry officials drove journalists out to see this house on Wednesday but access was later denied, suggesting that it was on or part of the base. One Tripoli resident who owns a farm next to the base said three siblings, including a girl, were killed in the attack. This couldn’t be independently verified.
In Brussels, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was meeting again Thursday as members wrangle over who would take command of the operation. NATO members appeared to be converging on an approach that would allow the alliance to police the no-fly zone already effectively in place across the country’s populated northern coast.
US President Barack Obama has said the U.S., already deeply involved in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, intends to soon shed its leadership role in Libya.
“The president has made clear that the United States is not going to be in the lead in this operation for the longer term, and in fact, for more than a week or so from the beginning of the operation,” US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday.
At a meeting Wednesday evening, France held out against the other 27 NATO members over the alliance’s role. France, which was the first to send warplanes into action above Libya, wants NATO to take a secondary, mainly technical role, in a command structure of a coalition that would include Arab countries, which aren’t NATO members.
Other allies argued that command of the strikes should rest with NATO, which has the most experience in the role. Turkey, which had originally opposed NATO enforcement of a no-fly zone, appeared to shift, insisting the no-fly zone should be a NATO-only operation, diplomats said. Turkey also said it plans to send warships to enforce an arms embargo off the Libyan coast.
The 27 NATO allies are worried about the safety of their militaries, diplomats say. At the moment, command isn’t unified; French, British, Canadian and other national militaries coordinate separately with the US, which is the effective leader of the operation. That is a recipe for mistakes, so-called friendly fire incidents and poor cooperation, diplomats say.
Having pushed Col. Gadhafi’s forces back from the rebels’ de facto capital, the eastern city of Benghazi, in the opening salvos of the six-day-old air campaign, the allies now appear to be launching airstrikes to keep Libyan troops from penetrating so deeply into key cities that they could mix in with the local populace and put them out of reach of allied planes and missiles.
Misrata, 125 miles east of Tripoli, was quiet as of early Thursday except for sporadic small arms fire, according to residents reached by phone, who described a long-awaited reprieve. “We are very relieved today compared with other days,” said a doctor in the city, Libya’s third largest and an important commercial hub.
A day earlier, residents said fighter jets were heard over the city starting at 1:30 Wednesday morning, with intermittent explosions lasting until about midday. In one instance, they said the sky was lit up and a flame rose briefly from the direction of the airport.
Underscoring the potential limits of aerial intervention, residents and rebels in Misrata have described a grim humanitarian situation on the ground. Opposition fighters are reportedly running low on food and medicine, and Col. Gadhafi forces have shelled the center with heavy artillery and made incursions that have triggered street battles with rebels.
Misrata rose up against the regime when the first wave of protests swept the country last month. Col. Gadhafi’s forces later encircled the city center and tried to isolate it by cutting off water and electricity, preventing food and medicine shipments, and disconnecting the cellphone network.
The violence, including the use of sniper fire by Col. Gadhafi’s troops, has resulted in the death of dozens of people, according to two doctors in the city. One said the overall death toll has reached at least 170 since late February. This couldn’t be independently confirmed.
Government forces now control one of the city’s major arteries and have moved into the sprawling central hospital, according to witnesses. They said government forces have posted snipers on rooftops and tanks in front of the hospital.
Allied commanders are hoping their latest airstrikes will produce an outcome in Misrata and other key cities similar to that in Benghazi, where Col. Gadhafi’s troops were chased off and rebels won time to regroup.
Government officials in Tripoli have insisted the situation was calm in Misrata and that they were only confronting a small band of Islamic extremists there.
Col. Gadhafi himself remained defiant, vowing that Western powers engaged in military action in Libya would “end up in the dustbin of history.”