Nato sees 90-day campaign

Western warplanes strike ground targets in eastern Libyan town

 Mission Libya: A French Navy E-2C Hawkeye takes off from the deck of the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean sea as part of the operation Odyssey Dawn. Nato’s military staff is drawing up detailed plans to assume full control of the no-fly zone over Libya in coming days, after member nations agreed to take on the operation from a US-led coalition. APIn Tripoli, residents reported another air raid just before dawn on Friday, hearing the roar of a warplane, followed by a distant explosion and bursts of anti-aircraft gunfire.

Western-led operations to enforce a no-fly zone to stop a violent crackdown against a popular uprising won more Arab support when the United Arab Emirates said it would take part, but France cautioned the conflict would not be quick.

“I doubt that it will be days,” Admiral Edouard Guillaud told France Info radio. “I think it will be weeks. I hope it will not take months.”

Guillaud said a French plane destroyed an army artillery battery near the eastern frontline town of Ajdabiyah, 150 km south of Benghazi. Ajdabiyah is strategically important for both sides as it commands the coastal highway to the west.

In London, the Ministry of Defence said British Tornado aircraft had also been active there, firing missiles overnight at Libyan military vehicles threatening civilians.

In Brussels, a Nato official said on Friday that planning for Nato’s no-fly operation assumed a mission lasting 90 days, but this could be extended or shortened as required.

Rebel forces on the road to Ajdabiyah seemed more organised than in recent days, when fighters’ disarray stirred doubts about their ability ever to pose an armed challenge to Gadhafi.

They had set up road blocks at regular intervals and Reuters counted at least four truck-based rocket launchers—heavier weaponry than had been seen earlier this week.

In the eastern rebel bastion of Benghazi, rebel spokesman Mustafa Gheriani said he expected Ajdabiyah to fall on Friday or Saturday following the overnight British and French strikes.

“This (the strikes) will weaken their forces and more importantly their morale,” he said, adding the level of Western strikes was sufficient. “We feel safe under their protection”. He repeated that rebels did not want ground troops and said if Gadhafi was prevented from bringing in mercenaries, the rebels could win the ground war on their own.

The rebels’ main concern was the western cities of Misrata and Zintan, besieged by government troops, he said.

“They are starting to run short of basic needs,” he said.

A resident of Zawiyah, just west of Tripoli, said the city resembled a ghost town after heavy fighting, with some residents subject to beatings and kidnappings.
“It is a ghost town. Gadhafi’s men are still firmly in control but they are facing resistance from the rebels in some streets,” said Mohsen, who fled to the Tunisian border on Wednesday. Gadhafi’s forces took back control of Zawiyah, about 50 km west of Tripoli, two weeks ago.

Nato said on Thursday that after four days of tough negotiations that it would enforce the no-fly zone but stopped short of taking full command of UN-backed military operations to protect civilians from forces loyal to Gadhafi.

The United States, embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan, is keen to step back and play a supporting role in Libya in order to preserve alliance unity and maintain the support of Muslim countries for the UN-mandated intervention.

Despite the apparently cumbersome structure of the planned new command and Arab jitters on the use of force, the operation continues to receive support from beyond Western ranks.

At the UN, envoys said Sudan had quietly granted permission to use its airspace to nations enforcing the no-fly zone.

South of the Sahara, local media quoted a cabinet minister as saying Uganda would freeze Libyan assets worth about $375 million in line with a UN resolution imposing sanctions on Libya following Gadhafi’s violence crackdown.

The United Arab Emirates said it would send 12 planes to take part in operations to enforce the no-fly zone.

Qatar has already contributed two fighters and two military transport planes to help enforce the no-fly zone.

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