- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 23, 2011

AJDABIYA, Libya (AP) — A top Navy official in the campaign in Libya on Wednesday said international forces were attacking government troops that have been besieging population centers in the North African nation.

Rear Adm. Gerard Hueber, speaking to Pentagon reporters from the U.S. command ship in the Mediterranean Sea, said the coalition is targeting Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s mechanized forces, artillery and mobile missile sites as well as ammunition and other supplies for government troops.

Adm. Hueber said that with the eastern city of Benghazi in rebel control, coalition forces have moved west to try to protect Ajdabiya. Officials also reported bombing an ammunition depot Wednesday near Misrata.

International airstrikes forced Col.  Gadhafi’s tanks to roll back from Misrata on Wednesday, a local doctor said, giving respite to civilians who have endured more than a week of attacks and a punishing blockade.

In the east, civilians fleeing another strategic city described relentless shelling and dire conditions.

Western diplomats neared an agreement to let NATO assume responsibility for the no-fly zone and its warships began patrolling off Libya’s Mediterranean coast.

The international coalition continued airstrikes and patrols early Wednesday, but the report that Misrata was targeted could not immediately be confirmed. U.S. Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, the on-scene commander, said Tuesday the coalition was “considering all options” in response to intelligence showing troops were targeting civilians in the city, 125 miles southeast of Tripoli.

A doctor in Misrata said the tanks fled after the airstrikes began around midnight, giving a much-needed reprieve to the city, which is inaccessible to human rights monitors or journalists. He said the airstrikes struck the aviation academy and a vacant lot outside the central hospital, which was under maintenance.

“There were very loud explosions. It was hard to see the planes,” the doctor said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals if Col. Gadhafi’s forces take the city. “Today, for the first time in a week, the bakeries opened their doors.”

He said the situation was still dangerous, with pro-Gadhafi snipers shooting at people from rooftops.

“Some of the tanks were hit and others fled,” he said. “We fear the tanks that fled will return if the airstrikes stop.”

Col. Gadhafi made his first public appearance in a week late Tuesday, hours after explosions sounded in Tripoli. State TV said he spoke from a balcony at his Bab Al-Aziziya residential compound, the same one hit by a cruise missile Sunday night. “In the short term, we’ll beat them; in the long term, we’ll beat them,” he said.

“O great Libyan people, you have to live now, this time of glory; this is a time of glory that we are living,” he said to enthusiastic supporters.

The withdrawal of the tanks from Misrata was a rare success for the rebels. The disorganized opposition holds much of the east but has struggled to take advantage of the gains from the international air campaign, which appears to have hobbled Col. Gadhafi’s air defenses and artillery just as the rebels were facing defeat.

Neither side has mustered the force for an outright victory, raising concerns of a prolonged conflict in the cities where they are locked in combat, such as Misrata and Zintan in the west and Ajdabiya, a city of 140,000 that is the gateway to the east.

Story Continues →