Allied air strikes silence Gadhafi guns

Western powers struggle to agree on a coherent command structure

Jubilation: People celebrate atop a destroyed mobile artillery piece belonging to forces loyal to Muammar Gadhafi after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah on Wednesday. ReutersBreathing defiance, Gadhafi earlier said Western powers who carried out a fourth night of air strikes on Libya to protect civilians under a UN mandate were “a bunch of fascists who will end up in the dustbin of history.”

The Western powers enforcing the UN resolution with their military might are struggling to agree on a coherent command structure, including Nato, after Washington said it wanted to hand over leadership of the campaign in the coming days.

Gadhafi’s tanks had kept up the shelling of Misrata, killing dozens of people this week, and residents said a “massacre” was taking place with doctors treating the wounded in hospital corridors. Snipers killed five people on Wednesday, they said.

“Now with the air strikes we are more optimistic,” Saadoun, a Misrata resident, told Reuters by telephone. “These strikes give us hope, especially the fact they are precise and are targeting the (Gadhafi) forces and not only the bases.”

“Before the strikes, tanks shelled the city ... but now they haven’t fired a single artillery (round) since the air strike.”

Such precision bombing missions can be directed at long distance with electronic systems and sometimes use rebel agents in the target zone or special forces long-range reconnaissance patrols who guide the warplanes in.

At least two explosions were heard in the Libyan capital Tripoli before dawn on Wednesday on a fourth night of strikes and Gadhafi looked set to dig in for the long haul.

“We will not surrender,” Gadhafi told supporters forming a human shield to protect him at his Tripoli compound.

Prior to the Misrata strikes, US Rear Admiral Peg Klein said warplanes, which had been suppressing Libya’s air defences, would now be sent out to attack Gadhafi’s tanks.

“Some of those cities still have tanks advancing on them to attack the Libyan people,” said Klein, commander of the expeditionary strike group aboard the USS Kearsarge off Libya.

“We are authorised, and the president made the nexus between the Security Council resolution and what he considers our legal mandate to attack those tanks. So that is the type of target that our strike aircraft will go at.” The siege of Misrata, now weeks old, had become increasingly desperate, with water cut off for days and food running out, doctors operating on patients in hospital corridors and many of the wounded left untreated or simply turned away.

Gaddafi forces resumed on Wednesday their bombardment of Zintan, another rebel-held town in west Libya, a resident said, and tanks were expected there.

The US, with its forces already tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan, has said it wants to take a back seat.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Nato would take on a coordination role in the Libya intervention and a contact group would be formed —made up of representatives of coalition countries, African Union, Arab League and European Union countries—which will be in charge of strategic planning.

“It is not (Nato) that will be in charge of strategy, Juppe told reporters. “We are soon going to announce the creation of a contact group which will plan the operation.”

The US, Britain and France agreed on Tuesday that the alliance should play a key operational role, but the assent of all 28 Nato states is needed and they have been split over whether it should also exercise political control. Turkey, a Muslim state, said the campaign has already gone beyond the scope of last week's resolution.

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