- Associated Press - Thursday, March 24, 2011

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.

Adm. Veri said NATO was prepared to board any suspect ships that don’t submit voluntarily to inspections.

“If they should find resistance, the use of force is necessary,” he said, noting that the U.N. Security Council had mandated all means necessary to enforce the embargo.

Coalition bombers and ships continued to strike at Gadhafi positions, including artillery, tanks, an ammunition bunker and a small number of helicopters as they sat on an airfield along the coast, a U.S. defense official said Thursday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

More than a dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from U.S. and British ships in the Mediterranean Sea late Wednesday and early Thursday, their targets including Col. Gadhafi’s air defense missile sites in Tripoli and south of the capital. Other attacks were launched against an ammunition bunker near Misrata and forces south of Benghazi, the official said.

The U.N. Security Council authorized the embargo and no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians after Col. Gadhafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who wanted him to leave after 42 years in power. But rebel advances have foundered, and the two sides have been at stalemate in key cities such as Misrata and Ajdabiya, the gateway to the opposition’s eastern stronghold.

Ajdabiya has been under siege for more than a week, with the rebels holding the city center but facing relentless shelling from government troops positioned on the outskirts.

Residents fleeing the violence said the situation inside the city has deteriorated in recent days. Two airstrikes targeted the area early Thursday, said a rebel, Taha el-Hassadi.

Mohammed Ali, 56, who fled with his family in a station wagon said: “They’ve cut everything — the electricity, the water. It’s getting worse and worse inside.”

Government troops also continued barraging the western city of Misrata on Thursday but were forced to roll back their tanks periodically amid coalition airstrikes.

A 42-year-old doctor in the city said shelling had damaged a mosque and a hotel near the hospital.

“When the allies’ planes were seen flying in the sky, the shelling stopped and the tanks fled,” he said. “We still have to deal with snipers in the main street in Misrata and try to warn people to stay away from it.”

Maggie Michael reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Paris; Pauline Jelinek and Robert Burns in Washington; Nicole Winfield in Rome; and Martin Vogl in Bamako, Mali, contributed to this report.