Allies attack targets in Tripoli as Europeans feud over leadership

libya mar 21 3
A tank belonging to forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi explodes
after an air strike by coalition forces

By David D. Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim
The New York Times

TRIPOLI, Libya — Explosions and anti-aircraft fire could be heard in and around Tripoli Monday in a third straight night of attacks there against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces, while European nations feuded over who should take command of the no-fly zone. On the ground in Libya, pro-Qaddafi forces were holding out against the allied campaign and an amateurish rebel counter-attack.

Pentagon officials said there were fewer American and coalition airstrikes in Libya Sunday night and Monday, and that the number was likely to decline further in coming days. But Gen. Carter F. Ham, the head of United States Africa Command, who is in charge of the coalition effort, said there would be coalition airstrikes on Colonel Qaddafi’s mobile air defenses and that some 80 sorties — only half of them by the United States — had been flown on Monday.

President Obama said that the initial stages of the operation aimed at eliminating Libyan air defenses were being coordinated by the American forces, who would then turn over full responsibility to their partners to establish and maintain a no-fly zone. But it is still “U.S. policy that Qaddafi needs to go,” he said at a news conference in Santiago, Chile, with that country’s president, Sebastian Pinera. “We have got a wide range of tools in addition to our military effort to support that policy,” he said, citing economic sanctions, the freezing of assets and other measures to isolate the regime in Tripoli.

But as NATO members met Monday in Brussels to try to work out a common position that would allow the organization to participate in the no-fly zone there seemed to be confusion about who exactly would carry the operation forward. NATO approved on Sunday plans to help enforce a United Nations arms embargo against Libya, but so far it has not been able to agree on how to proceed on either that or the no-fly zone.

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said that responsibility for the no-fly zone would be transferred to NATO. But France raised objections to that, with its foreign minister, Alain Juppé, saying in Brussels on Monday that “the Arab League does not wish the operation to be entirely placed under NATO responsibility. It isn’t NATO which has taken the initiative up to now.”

Turkey, a NATO member that has opposed the use of force in Libya and was still seething over being omitted from a planning meeting in Paris on Saturday, refused on Sunday to back a NATO military plan for the no-fly zone. But its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, denied that his country was against NATO participation in the operation, saying only that he wanted assurances that it would be brief and not end in an occupation.

In a letter to Congress on Monday, President Obama made it clear that the United States has demanded that Colonel Qaddafi withdraw his forces from the embattled cities of Ajdabiya, Misrata and Zawiya, cease all attacks against civilians and restore water, electricity and gas service s to all areas. There was little evidence he was complying.

Rebel fighters trying to retake the eastern town of Ajdabiya said they were driven back on Monday by rocket and tank fire from government loyalists still controlling entrances to the city. Dozens of fighters fell back to a checkpoint around 12 miles north of Ajdabiya, and rebels said at least eight others had been killed during the day’s fighting, including four who had been standing in a bloodied pickup truck that the fighters showed to reporters.

There were conflicting reports about whether the allies had attacked loyalist forces in Ajdabiya. While planes had been heard overhead, the rebel fighters said there appeared to have been no attack on the pro-Qaddafi forces holding the entrance to Ajdabiya on the coastal highway leading north to Benghazi. Ajdabiya is a strategically important town that has been much fought over, straddling an important highway junction and acting as a chokepoint for forces trying to advance in either direction.

As they returned from Ajdabiya, the rebels appeared to have fallen into disarray, with one commander at the checkpoint trying to marshal the opposition forces, using a barely functioning megaphone, but few of the fighters heeding his exhortations.In the western city of Misurata, forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi were still at large and were using civilians from nearby towns as human shields, Reuters reported, but that could not be immediately confirmed.

As it gained force, the allied air campaign met a rising tide of criticism from around the world, notably from Russia and China, which abstained from voting on the United Nations resolution. “In general, it reminds me of a medieval call for a crusade,” Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said on Monday, after the Russian foreign ministry criticized the allies on Sunday for “indiscriminate use of force.”

As Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates began a visit to Russia, Mr. Putin called the resolution “deficient and flawed,” saying, “It allows everyone to undertake any actions in relation to a sovereign government.”

A commentary in China’s state-run People’s Daily newspaper said that the Western actions violated international law and courted unforeseen disaster. “It should be seen that every time military means are used to address crises, that is a blow to the United Nations Charter and the rules of international relations,” the commentary said.

On Sunday, a vital Arab participant in the agreement expressed unhappiness with the way the strikes were unfolding. The secretary general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, told Egyptian state media that he was calling for an emergency league meeting to discuss the situation in the Arab world, and particularly to discuss the killing of civilians in allied attacks in Libya.

But on Monday, Mr. Moussa spoke of the allied actions in more measured tones, saying, “We respect the Security Council’s resolution and we have no conflict with the resolution, especially as it confirms that there is no invasion or occupation of Libyan territory.”

Mr. Cameron defended the allied attacks before Parliament, saying they had averted “a bloody massacre in Benghazi.”

As the assault unfolded late Sunday, an explosion thundered from Colonel Qaddafi’s personal compound in Tripoli, and a column of smoke rose above it, suggesting that the allied forces may have struck either his residence there or the nearby barracks of his personal guards. Unnamed Western officials were quoted in various news reports as saying that the building was a military command and control center.

Journalists taken by the Qaddafi government to visit the site shortly after the blast said they saw a bomb-damaged building that appeared to be an administrative center rather than a military barracks or a Qaddafi residence, although the exact nature of the facility could not be definitively confirmed. No casualties were reported, though the government spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, called it “a barbaric bombing.”

Asked about the explosion, Vice Adm. William E. Gortney said in a Washington news conference that the United States was not trying to kill the Libyan leader. “At this particular point I can guarantee that he’s not on a targeting list,” he said, saying that the United States military was working to weaken his military capacity rather than remove him.

In London, the Defense Ministry said on Monday that British Tornado aircraft that had flown 1,500 miles from a base in eastern England overnight aborted their mission at the last minute after “further information came to light that identified a number of civilians within the intended target area. As a result, the decision was taken not to launch weapons. This decision underlines the U.K.’s commitment to the protection of civilians.” The ministry did not identify the specific target, but officials indicated that the Tornados’ sortie was part of an effort — reinforced by cruise missiles fired from a British submarine in the Mediterranean — to strike at air defense systems.

The planes were to have struck their target at around midnight, British time — the early hours of the morning in Libya.

Britain also made clear that it placed no store in a Libyan announcement on Sunday night of a second cease-fire.

“We and our international partners are continuing operations in support of the United Nations Security Council resolution” authorizing the attacks, the Defense Ministry said. In an interview on British radio, Foreign Secretary William Hague said the allies would judge Colonel Qaddafi “by his actions not his words.”

“They have to be observing a real cease-fire” before the air and sea attacks would stop, he said.

David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Tripoli, Libya, and Kareem Fahim from Benghazi, Libya. Elisabeth Bumiller, Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker contributed reporting from Washington, Steven Erlanger and Alan Cowell from Paris, Clifford J. Levy from Moscow, and Julia Werdigier from London.

See Related: Libya Archive

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