NATO ships patrol sea; Gaddafi forces roll back

BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — NATO ships patrolled off Libya’s coast Wednesday as airstrikes, missiles and energized rebels forced Moammar Gadhafi’s tanks to roll back from two key western cities, including one that was the hometown of army officers who tried to overthrow him in 1993.

Libya’s opposition took haphazard steps to form a government in the east, as they and the U.S.-led force protecting them girded for prolonged and costly fighting. Despite disorganization among the rebels — and utter confusion over who would ultimately run the international operation — the airstrikes and missiles seemed to have their intended effect in Libya, at least for now.

But the U.S. made clear that others would have to lead the way: Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. could relinquish control as soon as Saturday. He had no answer when asked about a possible stalemate if Gadhafi hunkers down, and the coalition lacks U.N. authorization to target him.

Rear Adm. Gerard Hueber, a top U.S. officer in the campaign in Libya, said international forces were attacking government troops that have been storming population centers. On Wednesday evening, Libyan state television reported a “Crusader colonialist bombing targeting certain civil and military locations” in Tripoli’s Tajoura district — scene of some of the heaviest past protests against Gadhafi.

From Ajdabiya in the east to Misrata in the west, the coalition’s targets included mechanized forces, mobile surface-to-air missile sites and lines of communications that supply “their beans and their bullets,” Hueber told Pentagon reporters by phone from the U.S. command ship in the Mediterranean sea.

A doctor in Misrata said Gadhafi’s tanks fled after the airstrikes, giving a much-needed reprieve to the besieged coastal city, which is inaccessible to human rights monitors or journalists.

He and rebel leaders said pro-Gadhafi snipers continued to fire on civilians from rooftops on Wednesday. The withdrawal of the tanks from Misrata and Zintan was a rare success for the rebels, who are struggling daily against Gadhafi forces in the eastern gateway city of Ajdabiya. The disorganized opposition holds much of the east but has been unable to take advantage of the international air campaign that saved it from the brink of defeat.

London to host political meeting on Libya

BRUSSELS (AP) — U.S., European, and Arab and African officials have been invited to London next week for political talks about Libya and how the NATO alliance will assume responsibility for the no-fly zone over the North African nation to protect civilians, France and Britain said Wednesday.

NATO nations, meanwhile, remained deadlocked over the alliance’s possible role in enforcing the U.N.-authorized no-fly zone.

A tentative draft outline of the arrangement would leave political supervision of the effort in the hands of the international coalition while transferring command of military operations from the United States to NATO, according to diplomats in Brussels who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

NATO’s 28 members were in the final phases of drawing up the outline, the diplomats said, but they failed again to reach an agreement on Wednesday on the alliance’s possible role in enforcing the U.N.-authorized no-fly zone.

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