Gadhafi forces shell rebel towns

US warplane crashes; Nato meets to discuss command structure

Mighty fall: Curious onlookers gather around a US Air Force F-15E fighter jet after it crashed near the eastern city of Benghazi on Tuesday. ReutersWith anti-Gadhafi rebels struggling to create a command structure than can capitalise on the air strikes against Libyan tanks and air defences, Western nations have still to decide who will take over command once Washington pulls back.

The US will cede control in days, President Barack Obama said, even as divisions in Europe fuelled speculation that Washington would be forced to retain leadership of air patrols that will replace the initial bombardment.

“We anticipate this transition to take place in a matter of days and not in a matter of weeks,” Obama, facing questions at home about the US military getting bogged down in a third Muslim country, told a news conference on a visit to Chile.

In the first apparent air force casualty of the campaign, a US F-15E crashed in Libya overnight and its two crew members were rescued, the US  military said. The crash was likely caused by mechanical failure and not hostile fire, it said.

In the latest fighting on Tuesday, Gadhafi’s tanks shelled the rebel-held western city of Misrata, in which four children were killed when their car was hit, residents said, adding the death toll on Monday had reached 40.

Residents painted a grim picture of the situation in Misrata which has been under siege by Gadhafi loyalists for weeks with doctors operating on people with bullet and shrapnel wounds in hospital corridors and tanks in the city centre.

“The situation here is very bad. Tanks started shelling the town this morning,” a resident, called Mohammed, told Reuters by telephone from outside the city’s hospital, adding:
“Snipers are taking part in the operation too. A civilian car was destroyed, killing four children on board.”

Al Jazeera news network said Gadhafi forces were trying to seize the western rebel-held town of Zintan near the Tunisian border in an attack using heavy weapons. Residents had already fled the town centre to seek shelter in mountain caves.

Security analysts say it is unclear what will happen if the Libyan leader digs in, especially since Western powers have made clear they would be unwilling to see Libya partitioned between a rebel-held east and Gadhafi-controlled west.

Rebels in east Libya were positioned just outside Ajdabiyah on Tuesday, making no further advance on the strategic town despite a third night of Western air strikes on the north African oil-producing state.

At the frontline in the desert scrub about 5 km outside the town located at the gateway to the rebel-held east, rebels said air strikes were helping cripple Gadhafi’s heavy armour. But there was no sign of a swift drive forward.

When asked why rebel units had not advanced towards their objective, which is the eventual taking of Tripoli, Ahmed al-Aroufi, a rebel fighter at the frontline, told Reuters: “Gadhafi has tanks and trucks with missiles.”

Air campaign

Commenting on the air campaign to protect civilians in this uprising against Gadhafi’s 41-year rule, Aroufi said: “We don’t depend on anyone but god, not France or America. We started this revolution without them through the sweat of our own brow, and that is how we will finish it.”

Echoing rebel opposition to any intervention by foreign ground forces, he said: “We need the no-fly zone for them to strike the heavy armour. But if they bring land forces we will leave Gadhafi alone and they will be our new target.”

Washington, wary of being drawn into another war after long campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, has ruled out specific action to overthrow Gadhafi, though France said on Monday it hoped the Libyan government would collapse from within.  Obama did not spell out which nation or organisation would take charge of the campaign, but Britain and France took a lead role in pushing for air strikes in Libya which have already destroyed much of its air defences.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said the intention was to transfer command to Nato, but France said Arab countries did not want the US-led alliance in charge of the operation.

Nato officials resumed talks in Brussels on Tuesday after failing to reach agreement at heated talks on Monday.

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