No-fly zone to go from Benghazi to Tripoli

March 21, 2011 at 9:33 PM
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TRIPOLI, Libya, March 21 (UPI) -- The no-fly zone over Libya will stretch 621 miles from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi to Tripoli, a U.S. military leader said Monday.

"Our actions today are focused on extending the no-fly zone southward, then westward from Benghazi," U.S. Army Col. Carter Ham, head of the U.S. Africa Command, said during a military briefing. "With the growing capabilities of the coalition, I anticipate the no-fly zone will soon extend to Brega, Misurata and then to Tripoli. That's about 1,000 kilometers [621 miles], so it's a pretty wide area."

Coalition forces from the United States, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, Norway, Qatar and Spain are participating in air and sea attacks on troops loyal to Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, Ham said.

"[Through] a variety of reports, we know that regime ground forces that were in the vicinity of Benghazi now possess little will or capability to resume offensive operations," the U.S. military official said.

He said the coalition forces are committed to conducting operations "with precision, with very high concern for civilian casualties, and with positive control of all of our forces."

U.S. President Barack Obama, in Chile as part of his Latin American tour, said Arab nations "absolutely" would be participating in the no-fly zone mission.

"We are in consultations as we speak," Obama said.

"Now, keep in mind, we've only been in this process for two days now, and so we are continuing to evaluate the situation on the ground. But the core principle that has to be upheld here is that when the entire international community almost unanimously says that there's a potential humanitarian crisis about to take place, that a leader who has lost his legitimacy decides to turn his military on his own people, that we can't simply stand by with empty words; that we have to take some sort of action."

Chilean President Sabastian Pinera stated his government's support of the international military action against Libya, saying "human rights has no borders, does not recognize any border, and that is progress of this 21st century civilization."

"And that is why Chile supports the initiative of the United Nations through its Security Council, NATO and the Arab League to do all that is possible to end a true carnage, killing of civilians in Libya," Pinera said. "The responsibility is of all of us in each and every place of the world, whatever the circumstances involved to violate human rights. And in my view, a person that has bombarded his own people does not deserve to keep on being the ruler of that people."

White House adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters Monday the administration had anticipated Gadhafi using civilians as human shields.

"We take great care to avoid any civilian casualties," Rhodes said. "We undertake to be as careful as we can in our military operations."

Rhodes said he was unaware of any air attacks by Gadhafi forces on citizens since the coalition operation began Saturday.

Ham said military officials were developing a process to transfer the operations lead from the United States to another "designated headquarters."

Ham said coalition forces didn't know where Gadhafi was "nor have we expended any military effort" to locate him.

"We have expended considerable effort to degrade the Libyan regime's military command-and-control capability, and I think we've had some fairly significant effect in that regard," Ham said.

Gadhafi's compound was attacked Sunday because it has the capacity to exercise command over forces loyal to the longtime leader.

"This is a large compound … a pretty big place with lots of different buildings and facilities inside," Ham said. "[There is a] command-and-control facility that we are certain is a command-and-control facility, and we have multiple means that tell us that. And that's the facility that was attacked."

He stressed that "I have no mission to attack that person [Gadhafi] and we are not doing so. We are not seeking his whereabouts or anything like that."

Allied airstrikes against Libyan government forces were having mixed results, with rebels reporting a failed attempt to take Ajdabiya but success in Benghazi.

Rebel fighters trying to reclaim Ajdabiya said they were repelled Monday by rocket and tank fire from government troops controlling entrances to the city, The New York Times reported, saying there were conflicting reports about whether allies or rebels attacked troops loyal to leader Gadhafi.

Libyan opposition forces said allied military action cleared the highway south of the de facto rebel headquarters of Benghazi, Voice of America reported.

Opposition sources in the western town of Misurata said government troops had encircled the town, using civilians as a shield against any attack by foreign forces. However, the accounts could not be verified independently, VOA said.

The British Defense Ministry said Monday British aircraft aborted a mission at the last minute after "further information came to light that identified a number of civilians within the intended target area," which was not named, the Times said.

As the allied aerial assault pressed ahead, criticism of the campaign grew worldwide, notably in Russia and China, which both abstained from voting on the U.N. resolution.

Amr Moussa, the former Arab League chairman, pulled back on his earlier concerns about the airstrikes, 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."

The Libyan government said 48 people, mostly women, children and clerics, died in allied attacks that began Saturday. However, those comments could not be independently confirmed, and have been disputed by Western military and diplomatic officials, CNN reported.

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