|Barrage of air strikes rock military bases
TRIPOLI Huge explosions shook a military site in an eastern suburb of Libya’s capital early on Saturday as western forces piled pressure on Muammar Gaddafi with a barrage of air strikes.
The blasts, on the eighth day of a western bombing campaign to halt attacks by Gaddafi’s forces on civilians, left a radar facility in flames in Tajura, home to several military bases, a witness said.
“The district was shaken by three explosions in succession,” the resident said, adding that the explosions had shattered windows.
“The raid targeted a military radar site which is still on fire,” the resident, who lives close by, added.
US officials said the relentless pressure on Gaddafi and his allies was beginning to take its toll, and that the veteran Libyan leader was arming volunteers.
“We’ve received reports that he has taken to arming what he calls volunteers to fight the opposition,” said US Vice Admiral William Gortney.
Until now, Gaddafi is believed to have relied on militias run by his sons as well as African mercenaries to fight poorly-armed but determined opposition forces.
Gaddafi “has virtually no air defence left to him and a diminishing ability to command and sustain his forces on the ground”, said Gortney.
“His air force cannot fly, his warships are staying in port, his ammunitions stores are being destroyed, communications towers are being toppled, his command bunkers rendered useless,” Gortney said.
Western forces also pounded several key cities and towns overnight, including Ajdabiyah, where government loyalists have dug in and been accused by residents of brutalising the population.
“We entered the town,” Col. Mohammed Ehsayer, who defected from the army to join the rebellion against Gaddafi, said at a rebel outpost.
“Soon the eastern and western gates will fall,” he said referring to positions still in loyalist hands, with the uprising now in its fifth week.
“There is no water, no electricity and supplies are running short,” in Misrata, Libya’s third city, he said, adding residents were cowering indoors.
US warships and submarines had fired 16 new Tomahawk cruise missiles at Libyan targets, the Pentagon said, adding that coalition warplanes carried out 153 sorties over the same period.
The total number of Tomahawks launched at Libya rose to at least 170.
Libyan state television reported coalition warplanes also carried out raids late on Friday on the coastal town of Zliten, 160km east of Tripoli.
Qatar became the first Arab nation to take part in the military campaign, its air force and the French military announced.
Two Mirage fighter planes from Qatar carried out “air interdiction mission” alongside two French jets, the French military said on its website.
The Libyan leader appears to be showing signs of desperation as his government puts out feelers to mediators while trying to recruit volunteers to crush a rebellion, US officials said.
His government so far has withstood seven days of UN-mandated air and missile strikes that have shattered his air defences, disrupted communications and struck Libyan ground forces threatening the strategic eastern town of Ajdabiya.
Although the military action is aimed at protecting civilians from attack, the Obama administration says the strikes are putting pressure on the government and acknowledges its political aim is Gaddafi’s departure.
And US officials say there are signs the regime is feeling the heat. At least 114 people have been killed and 445 wounded in four days of coalition strikes on Libya, a health ministry official said.
“From March 20 to March 23, raids by the coalition killed 114 people and wounded 445 others,” the official, Khaled Omar, told a news conference in the Libyan capital.
An AU ad hoc committee on Libya met in Addis Ababa on Friday for consultations on the roadmap and “interacted” with a delegation from the government of the Libyan leader, but the opposition national council (NTC) was “unable” to attend, a statement said.
“The committee reiterates its willingness to take steps to engage the NTC on the basis of the AU roadmap, with particular and urgent focus on the cessation of hostilities,” it said.
The AU roadmap calls for an immediate end to hostilities, “cooperation by the relevant Libyan authorities to facilitate humanitarian aid,” and “protection for all foreign nationals, including African migrant workers.”
Italy has said it will present its own plan for Libya at a meeting in London on Tuesday of foreign ministers from the coalition taking military action against the Libyan rule and from regional countries.
Sarkozy “has said he has ideas. Since we too have ideas, we will present our plan of action in London,” Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in an interview with Quotidiano Nazionale published on Saturday.
Frattini also said that he had received assurances from the head of the Libyan opposition’s interim national council Mahmoud Jibril that any future government of Libya would respect current trade ties with Italy.
US President Barack Obama marked Greek independence day on Friday by thanking the Athens government for its solidarity as a Nato ally and said Athens was playing a critical role in the Libya operation.
Russia’s envoy to Nato said that any ground operation in Libya would be tantamount to an occupation, stressing that the military campaign must stick to the Security Council resolution.
“Holding a ground operation will be qualified as an occupation of Libya and this directly contravenes the resolution passed by the Security Council,” Nato envoy Dmitry Rogozin told the RIA Novosti news agency in Brussels.
Russia’s top general called the air strikes in Libya unsuccessful and gave his opinion that a ground operation would likely be needed to topple Gaddafi.
“Air strikes as I see it have not given them results,” the chief of staff of Russia’s armed forces, General Nikolai Makarov told the Interfax news agency in Moscow.
“If their aim was to topple the government of Gaddafi, then probably they will not manage without a ground phase,” he was quoted as saying. “I would not rule it out.”
A ferry with ambulances and medical equipment on board will sail soon to the North African country to bring to Turkey about 450 wounded people, deputy prime minister Cemil Cicek told Hurriyet newspaper.
Asked whether the operation had the blessing of Gaddafi’s government, Cicek said: “Yes, Turkey is the only country to maintain contact with both sides. We will bring the wounded. There is a deal on that.”
Al Qaeda’s offshoot in North Africa has snatched surface-to-air missiles from an arsenal in Libya during the civil strife there, Chad’s president said in an interview to be published on Monday.
Idriss Deby Itno did not say how many surface-to-air missiles were stolen, but told the African weekly Jeune Afrique that he was “100 per cent sure” of his assertion.