French jets down Libyan plane, target arms flow

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BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — French fighter jets struck an air base deep inside Libya and shot down one of Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s planes, officials said Thursday, and NATO ships patrolled the coast to block the flow of arms and mercenaries. Other coalition bombers struck artillery, arms depots and parked helicopters, officials said.

Libyan state television on Thursday showed blackened and mangled bodies that it said were victims of airstrikes in Tripoli, the capital. Rebels have accused Col. Gadhafi’s forces of taking bodies from the morgue and pretending they are civilian casualties.

The international military operation against Col. Gadhafi’s forces may last days or weeks — but not months, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said. But the rebels who largely control Libya’s east remain outgunned and disorganized: On Thursday, instead of handing out weapons at a checkpoint, they handed out sneakers to would-be fighters.

The French strikes overnight hit a base about 155 miles south of the Libyan coastline, French military spokesman Thierry Burkhard told reporters in Paris on Thursday without elaborating on the target or possible damage.

A French fighter jet reported attacking and destroying a Libyan plane believed to be a military trainer aircraft, a U.S. official said, providing the information about the event on condition of anonymity because it has not been publicly announced by the French government.

The French Rafael fighter helping enforce a no-fly zone over Libya destroyed what was identified as a Libyan G-2/Galeb, which is a trainer aircraft. The incident happened near the coastal city of Misrata.

The U.S. official said the Libyan plane may have been landing at the time of the attack. The official cautioned that details were still being confirmed.

Mr. Burkhard declined to comment.

In Tripoli, Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said that the “military compound at Juffra” was among the targets hit before dawn. Juffra is one of at least two air bases deep in Libya’s interior, on main routes that lead from neighboring countries in the Sahara region that have been suppliers of arms and fighters for the Gadhafi regime.

The town of Sabha, about 385 miles south of Tripoli, has another air base and international airport and is a major transit point for the ethnic Tuareg fighters from Mali and Niger who have fought for Col. Gadhafi for the past two decades. Malian officials say hundreds of Tuareg men have left to fight in Libya in the recent uprising.

Abdel Rahman Barkuli, a Libyan in exile originally from Sabha, said communications with his family there were cut abruptly on Wednesday night and heavy security is barring residents from moving in or out.

“My last contact with them, they said that the city is cordoned off by heavy security forces, of Faris Brigades. Snipers are on the rooftops,” he said. “My family told me that Sabha has turned into a barracks.”

Mr. Barkuli said members of two anti-Gadhafi tribes in the city were rounded up early in the protests that began Feb. 15. “No one knows anything about their whereabouts,” he said.

NATO warships began patrolling Wednesday off Libya’s Mediterranean coast in an effort that the blockade’s commander described as “closing the main front door” to weapons and mercenaries for Col. Gadhafi.

Vice Adm. Rinaldo Veri said the Mediterranean was the most efficient way to get weapons into Libya and that it was impossible to patrol its entire coast. He expected to have enough vessels in place in a few days for effective operations.

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