France pursues air strikes, NATO talks

24th March 2011, Comments 0 comments

Blasts and anti-aircraft fire rattled the Libyan capital for the sixth day as France hailed the allied air raids against Moamer Kadhafi's forces and promised they would go on indefinitely.

In Paris, military officials announced French warplanes had struck a Libyan military base overnight while NATO was preparing for a fresh round of talks later Thursday to resolve the squabble over transferring command of military operations from a US-led coalition to the 28-nation alliance.

French fighter jets attacked an air base 250 kilometres (150 miles) inland from the Mediterranean coast overnight, military officials said Thursday at a press conference.

Fresh air raids on Thursday shook Tajura, a residential neighbourhood some 32 kilometres (20 miles) 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".

The claims could not be independently confirmed.

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.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Thursday that coalition airstrikes against Libya had been a "success", while France's defence minister said intercepted communications showed that some forces under Kadhafi were wavering in their support of the Libyan leader.

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

He said the air campaign was a "success" and would carry on "as long as necessary."

Juppe insisted the operation was aimed at protecting civilian populations from attacks by Kadhafi 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.

The foreign minister predicted that Kadhafi would soon fall, even if his ouster from power is not part of the enabling UN Security Council Resolution's mandate.

"I am convinced that in Tripoli some people (in power) are beginning to ask themselves questions: can we continue with a dictator who -- without being excessive -- is crazy?" he said.

Coalition forces are acting under UN Resolution 1973 authorising "all necessary means" to protect civilians, including enforcing a no-fly zone.

In the context of uprisings across the Arab world, it is difficult to imagine "that a regime embodied by someone like Kadhafi can last long," Juppe added.

"But we think that it is the Libyans that should decide."

French defence minister Gerard Languet, in a separate interview with Europe 1 radio, said there were signs that soldiers fighting under Kadhafi realised that there is "no way out".

Over a period of four decades, the Libyan leader "has woven a web of support with soldiers who are tied to his success or failure," Languet said.

"These soldiers are in the process of realising -- we know this from listening posts -- that Kadhafi has no way out in his struggle. We sense that they are vacillating," he said.

The minister also confirmed that there would be new airstrikes by coalition forces.

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 command of 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.

A British submarine launched a fresh salvo of Tomahawk missiles at Libyan air defence systems, Major General John Lorimer, the spokesman for the chief of defence staff, said, but gave no details about the targets or the result of the strikes.

Tajura is home to the most important Libyan military bases and was struck by allied forces on the first day of operations on Saturday, launched against Libya to impose a UN no-fly zone on the country.

Canadian warplanes bombed their first target in Libya overnight, destroying a munitions depot in the rebel-held city of Misrata, Libya's third city 214 kilometres (132 miles) east of Tripoli, military officials said.

Late on Wednesday, Kadhafi's forces fielded tank to pound the only hospital in Misrata, which has been besieged by regime loyalists for weeks, a witness and a rebel spokesman said.

"The situation here is very bad and very serious. The tanks are shelling the hospital and houses," said the spokesman. On Tuesday 17 people were killed by snipers and shelling in Misrata, a doctor said.

Residents fleeing Ajdabiya, a strategic eastern town south of rebel capital Benghazi, on Wednesday described shelling, gunfire and burning houses, while an AFP reporter said a pall of smoke hung over the town and intermittent explosions were heard.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon again urged all sides in Libya to cease fire as the Security Council prepared to meet on Thursday, a week after clearing the way for action against Kadhafi.

"All those who violate international humanitarian and human rights law will be held fully accountable," Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky said, mentioning attacks on Misrata and Zintan, also in the west.

© 2011 AFP

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