Libya rebels close in on Ajdabiya

Rebel fighters sit in their vehicles along the Benghazi-Ajdabiyah road, yesterday. Western warplanes hit Libyan tanks on a fifth night of airstrikes yesterday but failed to stop Muammar Gaddafi's forces shelling rebel-held towns in the west.Picture: Reuters

REBELS battled on to the strategic eastern city of Ajdabiya on yesterday as plans firmed for Nato to take over coalition operations after Tripoli came under attack for the sixth day.

France promised to continue air raids "for as long as necessary" and Italy offered to increase its participation in the coalition operation.

Military officials announced French warplanes had struck a Libyan military base overnight and blasts and anti-aircraft fire rattled the Libyan capital before down.

Nato was preparing for a fresh round of talks to resolve the squabble over transferring command of military operations from a US-led coalition to the 28-nation alliance.

But there were clear signs that Turkey would drop its opposition to the plan and reluctantly join the operation.

French fighter jets attacked an air base 250km inland from the Mediterranean coast overnight, military officials said yesterday at a press conference.

Italy could offer warships and more planes for operations in Libya on top of four Tornado bombers and four F-16 fighter jets it has already deployed, the defence minister said.

Rebels were fighting to retake Ajbadiya from troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, an AFP journalist witnessed.

Shelling and gunfire could be heard at a rebel outpost nine kilometres from the oil city where hundreds of fighters amassed in the morning before marching forward.

"They are shooting at us with tanks, artillery and Grad missiles," said Mohamed, a rebel returning from the frontline. "We have nothing but light weapons whereas they have heavy ones."

The rebels, whose weapons range from Kalashnikovs to knives, are trying to enter the city from several fronts and managed to get within one kilometre of Ajdabiya's eastern entrance, said Mohamed.

Tanks guarded the northern and western entrances.

Heavy fighting Wednesday forced residents to flee en masse.

There were also reports from the southern stronghold of Sebha that the coalition had carried out intensive air raids on the town, bastion of Kadhafi's Guededfa tribe and home to an important military base.

Fresh air raids yesterday shook Tajura, a residential neighbourhood 32km east of the capital, with coalition forces targetting Libyan military bases, according to witnesses.

The official JANA news agency said "military and civilian sites from Tripoli to Tajura continue to be the target of raids by the aggressive and colonialist crusade ".

Officials when questioned provided no death toll although Libyan television reported "a large number" of civilian casualties as a result of air raids Wednesday on Tajura and broadcast images of corpses at a Tripoli morgue.

The claims could not be independently confirmed.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said yesterday that coalition air strikes against Libya had been a "success" and would "continue for as long as necessary" adding that it was a question "of days and weeks ... but not months ".

"We will continue with the airstrikes," Juppe told RTL radio. Tthe strikes were "only targeting military sites and nothing else."

Juppe insisted the operation was aimed at protecting civilian populations from attacks by Gaddafi loyalists, and denied reports that airstrikes had killed civilians. "It is the exact opposite," he said.

He added that France was in favour of handing over responsibility for implementing a UN-approved "no-fly" zone to Nato.

At the same time, however, the coalition led by the United States, France and Britain should maintain political control over the campaign, especially strikes against military installations, he said.

Nato ambassadors were to meet again in Brussels after the latest efforts to reach agreement on the transfer of authority ended in stalemate, partly because Turkey says the coalition bombings must stop first, a diplomat said.

Despite the row, Nato has drawn up the outlines of what its command structure would look like if and when it takes over the no-fly zone, another alliance diplomat said.

Several Nato nations want the alliance to take over the entire campaign, and US officials say they want to hand off responsibility to someone else within days.

France, however, is insisting on leaving political control of the mission in the hands of an international coalition while Nato would run day-to-day operations, arguing that flying the mission under the Western military organisation's flag would alienate Arab allies.

Italy's Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa explained that a naval flotilla composed of the aircraft carrier Garibaldi and three other warships as well as some Eurofighters and F-16s, two more Tornadoes and a C-130 military transport plane could bolster the force under Nato.AFP

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