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NATO pounds pro-Gadhafi forces' command centers

By Slobodan Lekic

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, May 21 2011 6:11 a.m. MDT

**ADDS INFORMATION IN SHIP & EXPANDS CAPTION**Smoke and flames pour from the Libyan Navy frigate Al Ghardabia, after it was hit during an airstrike by Tornado bombers of Britain's Royal Force on the port area of Tripoli, in the early hours of Friday May 20, 2011. NATO confirmed that its warplanes targeted the vessels and accused Libya of using its ships in the escalating conflict, including attempts to mine the harbor in Misrata. Rebels trying to end the nearly 40-year rule of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi have been struggling to hold the Western city of Misrata against repeated attacks by forces loyal to Gadhafi

Darko Bandic, Associated Press

TRIPOLI, Libya — NATO warplanes bombed command centers near Tripoli and in Libya's southwest as part of a continuing effort to cut communications links between Moammar Gadhafi and his units on the battlefields, the military alliance said Saturday.

The raids targeted a facility near the capital on Friday and a command and control node near Sebha, a Gadhafi stronghold deep in Libya's southwestern desert, a NATO statement said. Three surface-to-air missile launchers were hit near the government-held town of Sirte, and three rocket launchers near the rebel-held town of Zintan in the mountains south of Tripoli.

The alliance said its aircraft has flown more than 7,500 sorties since it took command of the aerial offensive, including nearly 3,000 strike missions.

With the bombing campaign entering its third month, NATO has come under increasing criticism that it is overstepping the U.N. Security Council's mandate, which provides for the protection of the civilian population but not for wider aerial attacks. Regional support for the daily bombings also appeared to be wavering.

This week, the South Africa-based Pan African Parliament, the legislative body of the African Union, condemned "the military aggression of NATO forces" and called for an urgent session of the U.N. General Assembly to consider the situation. The legislature reiterated its support for the AU peace plan that called for an immediate cease-fire and dialogue between the government and the rebels. The rebels have rejected that plan.

The Pan African Parliament also criticized NATO attacks on "public facilities, infrastructure and residential sites and the targeted assassination of (Libyan) leaders."

The African Union will hold an emergency session next week to discuss the crisis.

On Thursday, NATO warplanes bombed eight Libyan naval vessels in three ports, leaving ships partially sunken and charred and showering docks with debris in the military alliance's broadest attack on Moammar Gadhafi's navy.

The two frigates, a Soviet-built Koni class anti-submarine boat and a French-built Combattante class missile craft, were moored at the dock when they were hit with laser-guided bombs. It was not immediately clear whether their crews were aboard when they were struck.

NATO spokesman Wing Cmdr. Mike Bracken said the vessels were "legitimate and legal targets" because the Libyan navy had tried to mine the harbor at the rebel-held port of Misrata and had attempted to carry out attacks on shipping there.

Bracken declined to say whether the targeted frigates had actually been used in any naval operations since the start of the conflict.

But Commandant Omran al-Forjani, head of Libya's coast guard, said the ships had been deliberately left tied to their docks since a NATO warning in March that they would be considered targets if they left port.

"We were told if the boats moved, they would be hit," al-Forjani told a news conference Friday.

Al-Forjani said the targeted ships were used to patrol Libyan waters for boats carrying African migrants trying to make the dangerous sea crossing to Europe and for search-and-rescue operations.

In addition to about 200 aircraft enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya and carrying out attacks on pro-regime forces, there are also 21 warships under NATO command patrolling the central Mediterranean.

The task force has also boarded 47 vessels — including one on Friday — and seven ships suspected of carrying arms have been diverted since the naval operation started in mid-March.

Lekic reported from Brussels.

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