- Associated Press - Friday, May 20, 2011

TRIPOLI, LibyaNATO fighter jets struck three ports in bombing runs overnight, targeting Moammar Gadhafi’s navy in an effort to protect the nearby rebel-held port of Misrata, NATO said Friday. It was the broadest attack on Libya’s naval forces since the alliance joined the conflict.

One bombing run hit the main port of Tripoli, where reporters could see flames and smoke rising above the stricken warship into the night sky. Other targets were the Khoms port, between Tripoli and Misrata, and Sirte, east of the city.

In Brussels, NATO confirmed that its warplanes targeted the ports and accused Libya of using its ships in the escalating conflict, including attempts to mine the harbor in Misrata. Rebels trying to end the nearly 40-year rule of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi have been struggling to hold Misrata against repeated attacks by Gadhafi’s forces.

British Maj. Gen. John Lorimer, a communications officer, said British warplanes hit two Libyan corvette warships in the Khoms harbor and “successfully targeted a facility in the dockyard constructing fast inflatable boats, which Libyan forces have used several times in their efforts to mine Misrata and attack vessels in the area.”

He said the port was the nearest concentration of regime warships to the port of Misrata, which Gadhafi has repeatedly attempted to close to humanitarian shipping.

Mohammed Rashid, general manager of the Tripoli port, told reporters the coast guard boats were used to patrol Libyan waters for immigrant boats trying to make it to Europe and for search-and-rescue activities.

The port official said some damage was done to the port, but it was minimal. A government official later said he feared the NATO strike would discourage ships from using the Tripoli port, reducing imports and driving up the cost of basic goods for Libyans.

In a tour given to reporters at a distance from the area, a warship could be seen on fire, with flames and plumes of smoke rising from the stricken vessel.

Rear Adm. Russell Harding, deputy commander of the NATO operation, said the Gadhafi regime was employing more ships in its campaign against rebel fighters.

“Given the escalating use of naval assets, NATO had no choice but to take decisive action to protect the civilian population of Libya and NATO forces at sea,” he said.

NATO has constantly adapted to the rapidly changing and dynamic situation in Libya and at sea,” he said in a statement.

In Brussels, NATO played video clips from the jets’ gun cameras showing the bombing of two frigates and a port facility.

The two frigates, a Soviet-built Koni class anti-submarine boat and a French-built Combattante class missile craft, were moored at the dock when they were hit with laser-guided bombs. It was not immediately clear whether their crews were aboard when they were struck.

“Our aim was not to destroy these ships but to remove their military ability,” NATO spokesman Wing Cmdr. Mike Bracken told reporters. “They were identified as legitimate and legal targets.”

But Bracken declined to say whether the frigates had been used in any naval operations — such as the mining of Misrata port — in recent weeks. He said NATO has “meticulously communicated” to all government troops that the risks of being around military equipment were extremely high.

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