Published March 23, 2011
March 22: In this image taken from Libyan State TV, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi talks to a large crowd in Bab El Azizia, Libya. (AP)
The U.S. has essentially ended its Tomahawk missile missions in Libya as coalition forces launched air strikes over Libya for a fifth day Wednesday, targeting sites that support or supply Muammar al-Qaddafi’s military around the capital and other cities, defense officials said.
A defense official tells Fox News that the U.S. doesn’t plan to launch any more Tomahawk cruise missiles unless they are needed.
“We can fly air missions if we need to take out more air defense systems. We have less expensive means of doing that,” the U.S. official told Fox News.
The official says the U.S. is still providing nearly all of the refueling tanker capability to the coalition and intelligence and surveillance from the air. The official also says the U.S. still plans to hand over command to the British and French by next Tuesday.
International attacks overnight Tuesday and early Wednesday included strikes on air defenses near Tripoli and an ammunition depot outside the besieged city of Misrata, one official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
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International forces have also launched new airstrikes near the rebel-held city of Misrata, according to BBC News, as dozens have been killed in fighting in the western city. Snipers killed at least five people on Wednesday, according to Reuters.
“This morning, airstrikes twice hit the airbase where Qaddafi’s brigades are based,” a resident of Misrata told Reuters.
Residents say that coalition attacks forced government troops to withdraw tanks from Misrata.
U.S. officials say forces loyal to Qaddafi continue to advance on opposition-held areas.
“Some of these cities still have tanks advancing on them to attack the Libyan people,” Rear Adm. Peg Klein, commander of the expeditionary strike group aboard the USS Kearsarge, told Reuters.
The U.S. bombed the wreckage of the F-15 fighter jet that went down Tuesday, a military official told Reuters.
The wreckage was bombed overnight “to prevent materials from getting into the wrong hands,” the U.S. official told Reuters.
Qaddafi’s forces intensified the shelling of rebel positions outside a strategic eastern city as they fought to prevent the opposition from taking advantage of the five-day-old international air campaign to regroup in the east.
Western diplomats, meanwhile, said an agreement was emerging about NATO would take responsibility for a no-fly zone over Libya after the United States which has effectively commanded the operation until now — reiterated that it was committed to the transition.
In what has become a common pattern, pro-Qaddafi troops who have besieged Ajdabiya — a city of 140,000 that is the gateway to the east — attacked a few hundred rebels gathered on the outskirts. The rebels fired back with Katyusha rockets but have found themselves outgunned by the Libyan government’s force.
Plumes of smoke rose over the city’s skyline.
“The weapons they have are heavy weapons and what we have are light weapons,” said Fawzi Hamid, a 33-year-old who joined the Libyan military when he was younger but is now on the rebels’ side. “The Qaddafi forces are more powerful than us so we are depending on airstrikes.”
Qaddafi was defiant in his first public appearance in a week late Tuesday, promising enthusiastic supporters at his residential compound in Tripoli, “In the short term, we’ll beat them, in the long term, we’ll beat them.”
Libyan state TV broadcast what it said was live coverage of Qaddafi’s less-than-five-minute statement. Standing on a balcony, he denounced the coalition bombing attacks on his forces.
“O great Libyan people, you have to live now, this time of glory, this is a time of glory that we are living,” he said.
State TV said Qaddafi was speaking from his Bab Al-Aziziya residential compound, the same one hit by a cruise missile Sunday night. Reporters were not allowed to enter the compound as he spoke.
One of Qaddafi’s sons may have been killed, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told ABC News on Tuesday. She cited unconfirmed reports and did not say which son she meant. She said the “evidence is not sufficient” to confirm this.
Clinton also told ABC that people close to Qaddafi are making contact with people abroad to explore options for the future, but she did not say that one of the options might be exile. She said they were asking, “What do we do? How do we get out of this? What happens next?”
Clinton also hinted at Qaddafi’s possible search for exile.
“A lot of it is just the way he behaves. It’s somewhat unpredictable. But some of it, we think, is exploring. You know, what are my options, where could I go, what could I do,” Clinton said. “And we would encourage that.”
Clinton would also not comment on whether or not the U.S. believes Qaddafi can be ousted from power.
“I don’t want to make any predictions because we are taking this one step at a time. I don’t want to jump beyond where we are right now,” she said. “Now obviously, if we want to see a stable, peaceful, hopefully someday democratic Libya, it is highly unlikely that can be accomplished if he stays in power as he is.”
Most of eastern Libya is in rebel hands but the force — with more enthusiasm than discipline — has struggled to take advantage of the gains from the international air campaign, which appears to have hobbled Qaddafi’s air defenses and artillery and rescued the rebels from impending defeat.
The coalition includes the U.S., Canada, several European countries and Qatar. Qatar was expected to start flying air patrols over Libya by this weekend, becoming the first member of the Arab League to participate directly in the military mission.
The Obama administration is eager to relinquish leadership of the hurriedly assembled coalition, but divisions have emerged over who would take over.
A compromise proposal would see NATO take a key role in the military operation guided by a political committee of foreign ministers from the West and the Arab world. Officials said the North Atlantic Council — NATO’s top decision-making body which already has approved military plans for enforcing the no-fly zone — may decide to start them later Wednesday.
Spanish Defense Minister Carme Chacon endorsed the proposal for handing over control of the Libya operation to a political committee. “We are comfortable with that,” she said.
Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin and the Associated Press contributed to this report.