TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Muammar Gaddafi’s forces attacked two west Libyan towns, killing dozens, while rebels were pinned down in the east and NATO tried to resolve a dispute over who should lead the Western air campaign.
With anti-Gaddafi rebels struggling to capitalize on the ground on the strikes against Libyan tanks and air defenses from the air, Western countries had still to decide who would take over command once Washington pulled back in a few days.
In the latest fighting on Tuesday, Gaddafi’s tanks shelled the rebel-held western town of Misrata and casualties included three children killed when their car was hit, residents said, adding the death toll for Monday alone had reached 40.
Residents painted a grim picture of the situation in Misrata, under siege by Gaddafi loyalists for weeks, with tanks in the city center and doctors operating on people with bullet and shrapnel wounds in hospital corridors.
“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 three children on board, the oldest is aged 13 years.”
Gaddafi, in his first appearance since the bombing campaign began, vowed to fight on. “We will be victorious in the end,” he told crowds at his Tripoli compound who have volunteered to be human shields in a speech carried live television.
In the first Western air force loss of the campaign, a U.S. F-15E crashed in Libya overnight and its two crew members were rescued, the U.S. military said. The crash was likely to have been caused by mechanical failure and not hostile fire, it said.
Explosions and anti-aircraft fire have reverberated across Tripoli for the past three nights and state television reported several attacks by the “crusader enemy.” Twenty Tomahawk missiles were fired at Libyan targets overnight, the U.S. military said.
A Reuters correspondent taken to a naval facility in east Tripoli by Libyan officials saw four Soviet-made missile carrier trucks which were destroyed. They were parked inside a building whose roof had collapsed, leaving piles of smoldering rubble.
“Yesterday six missiles and one bomb from a warplane hit this facility,” said Captain Fathi al-Rabti, an officer at the facility. “It was a massive explosion.”
Gaddafi’s forces were trying to seize the western rebel-held town of Zintan near the Tunisian border in an attack using heavy weapons. One resident said 10 people were killed on Tuesday. People fled 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 it clear they would be unwilling to see Libya partitioned between a rebel-held east and Gaddafi-controlled west.
Rebels in east Libya were stuck just outside Ajdabiyah on Tuesday, making no advance on the strategic town despite three nights of Western air strikes on the oil-producing state.
At the front line in the desert scrub about 5 km (3 miles) outside the town, gateway to the rebel-held east, fighters said air strikes were helping to cripple Gaddafi’s heavy amour.
When asked why rebel units had not advanced, Ahmed al-Aroufi, a rebel fighter at the front line, told Reuters: “Gaddafi has tanks and trucks with missiles.”
Commenting on the air campaign to protect civilians in this uprising against Gaddafi’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.”
Sheltering from tank fire behind sand dunes near Ajdabiyah, rebel fighters lack leadership, experience and any clear plan of action. One fighter, Mohamed Bhreka, asked who was in command, shrugged and said: “Nobody is. We are volunteers. We just come here. There is no plan.”
With Western allies reluctant to send in ground forces, it was unclear whether such a disorganized group could dislodge tanks concealed from the air in densely packed towns.
Washington, wary of being drawn into another war after long campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, has ruled out specific action to overthrow Gaddafi, although France said on Monday it hoped the Libyan government would collapse from within.
U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday won British and French support for a NATO role in the air campaign as Washington seeks to cede operational control within days. France had been against a NATO role for fear of alienating Arab support.
Turkey had also opposed a NATO command role as it said coalition air strikes had gone beyond what was authorized by the United Nations. However, its concerns had largely been settled, a senior U.S. official told reporters.
Another U.S. official said Washington believed NATO would effectively have to take operational, if not political, control due to its superior command structure.
“They are still looking at NATO,” one U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It could be a subtle NATO lead but still a NATO lead.”
President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office said France and the United States had agreed on how to use NATO command structures but did not agree any further details.
France and Britain had agreed to put together a “political steering body” of foreign ministers of countries participating in the coalition and the Arab League which would meet in the next few days in Brussels, London or Paris and hold regular meetings, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told parliament.
Two Qatari fighters and two 17 transport aircraft landed in Crete on Tuesday and the U.S. military said the aircraft would be “up and flying” over Libya by the weekend. That would be the first direct outside Arab involvement in the operation.
Four more Qatari aircraft and 24 UAE warplanes were also expected in Crete on their way to a forward base in Sicily.
Washington expected more Arab states to contribute to the no-fly zone in the coming days, a senior U.S. official said.
Rifts were growing internationally over the U.N. resolution, with Russia saying the U.N. Security Council would discuss on Thursday whether Western countries were going beyond the bounds of their authority to intervene to protect civilians.
China and Brazil urged a ceasefire amid fears of civilian casualties and Algeria called for an immediate end to military intervention in Libya, calling the action “disproportionate.”
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said those responsible for civilian deaths in Libya should pray for their souls.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Tuesday during a visit to Moscow some people in Russia seemed to believe what he termed Gaddafi’s “lies” about civilian casualties in Libya.
Libyan officials have said air strikes have killed dozens of civilians. They say the rebels are al Qaeda militants assisted by Western powers who are trying to steal Libya’s oil.
In Tripoli, Reuters correspondents said some residents, emboldened by a third night of air strikes, dropped their customary praise of Gaddafi and said they wanted him gone.
“My children are afraid but I know it’s changing,” one man said. “This is the end. The government has no control any more.”
Reporting by Mohammed Abbas and Angus MacSwan in Benghazi, Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy in Tripoli, Hamid Ould Ahmed and Christian Lowe in Algiers, Tom Perry in Cairo; David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Phil Stewart in Moscow; Writing by Peter Millership and Jon Hemming; Editing by Andrew Dobbie