NATO ships patrol Libya coast; rebels organize

By Ryan Lucas

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, March 23 2011 10:45 a.m. MDT

Rashid Khalikov, U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Libya and Director of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, of Geneva, faces the media after his return from the Egyptian-Libyan border, during a press conference at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, March 23, 2011. Khalikov said he is "extremely concerned" about the plight of civilians there, adding that the global body hasn't received any first-hand information about the humanitarian situation inside the country for a week.

Salvatore Di Nolfi, AP Photo/Keystone

BENGHAZI, Libya — International airstrikes forced Moammar Gadhafi's tanks to roll back from the western city of Misrata on Wednesday, a local doctor said, giving respite to civilians who have endured more than a week of attacks and a punishing blockade. NATO ships patrolled off Libya's coast as President Barack Obama said the U.S. was prepared to relinquish leadership of the campaign.

Gadhafi's forces appeared to weaken even in the western region that has been his stronghold, and Western diplomats neared agreement to let NATO assume responsibility for the no-fly zone. Both the U.N.-backed force and rebels, who took tentative steps toward forming a government in the east on Wednesday, appeared to be preparing for a long battle.

The international coalition continued airstrikes and patrols early Wednesday, but the report that Misrata was targeted could not immediately be confirmed. U.S. Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, the on-scene commander, said Tuesday the coalition was "considering all options" in response to intelligence showing troops were targeting civilians in the city, 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli.

A doctor in Misrata said the tanks fled after the airstrikes began around midnight, giving a much-needed reprieve to the city, which is inaccessible to human rights monitors or journalists. He said the airstrikes struck the aviation academy and a vacant lot outside the central hospital, which was under maintenance.

"There were very loud explosions. It was hard to see the planes," the doctor said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals if Gadhafi's forces take the city. "Today, for the first time in a week, the bakeries opened their doors."

He said the situation was still dangerous, with pro-Gadhafi snipers shooting at people from rooftops.

"Some of the tanks were hit and others fled," he said. "We fear the tanks that fled will return if the airstrikes stop."

Gadhafi made his first public appearance in a week late Tuesday, hours after explosions sounded in Tripoli. State TV said he spoke from his Bab Al-Aziziya residential compound, the same one hit by a cruise missile Sunday night. "In the short term, we'll beat them, in the long term, we'll beat them," he said.

The withdrawal of the tanks from Misrata was a rare success for the rebels. The disorganized opposition holds much of the east but has struggled to take advantage of the gains from the international air campaign, which appears to have hobbled Gadhafi's air defenses and artillery just as the rebels were facing defeat.

Obama told the Spanish-language network Univision that a land invasion was "absolutely" out of the question.

Asked what the exit strategy is, 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."

Neither side has mustered the force for an outright victory, raising concerns of a prolonged conflict in the cities were they are locked in combat, such as Misrata and Zintan in the west and Ajdabiya, a city of 140,000 that is the gateway to the east.

In Zintan, a resident said Gadhafi's forces were at the base of a nearby mountain and were shelling in that area, but rebels forced their retreat from all but one side of the city. After five days of fighting, resident Ali al-Azhari 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.

Al-Azhari, who spoke to The Associated Press by phone from the city, said one officer told rebels he had order "to turn Zintan to a desert to be smashed and flattened." Resentment against Gadhafi runs high in Zintan, a city of 100,000 about 75 miles (120 kilometers) south of Tripoli, because it was the hometown of many of the detained army officers who took part in a failed coup in 1993.

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