Western forces launched new air strikes on Libya overnight, flattening a building in Muammar Gaddafi's Tripoli compound as the Arab League yesterday reaffirmed its backing for a no-fly zone over the revolt-hit country.
|Tomahawk Cruise Missile|
Coalition officials said an administrative building in Gaddafi's fortified complex; about 50 meters from the tent where he generally meets guests had been destroyed by a cruise missile.
Libyan officials expressed anger at the strike, which they said had endangered civilian lives, but Britain said yesterday it had aborted an air raid because of the presence of civilians.
Operation Odyssey Dawn was launched Saturday to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1973 aimed at stopping Gaddafi's forces from harming any more civilians as they battle an uprising.
Gaddafi's troops retreated 100 kilometers from the insurgents' capital of Benghazi after fierce strafing by coalition aircraft destroyed much of their armor, but beat off a rebel advance on their new positions in the town of Ajdabiya.
"This was a barbaric bombing which could have hit hundreds of civilians gathered at the residence of Muammar Gaddafi about 400 meters away from the building which was hit," Libyan spokesman Mussa Ibrahim told journalists taken to the site.
He slammed the "contradictions in Western discourses", saying: "Western countries say they want to protect civilians while they bomb the residence knowing there are civilians inside."
While the US denied targeting Gaddafi, whose whereabouts were unknown yesterday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague refused to rule it out, saying it depended on "circumstances at the time".
|US Defense Secretary Robert Gates|
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it would be "unwise," and French defense ministry spokesman Laurent Teisseire also said, "The answer is no," when asked whether coalition forces would fire on the Libyan leader if they located him.
A coalition official said the strike had destroyed the Libyan leader's "command and control capability," adding, "we continue to strike those targets which pose a direct threat to the Libyan people and to our ability to implement the no-fly zone" authorized by Resolution 1973.
Gaddafi's army announced a new ceasefire late Sunday, but the US promptly accused Tripoli of lying or of breaching the truce immediately, while Ban said, "I sincerely hope and urge the Libyan authorities to keep their word.
"They have been continuing to attack the civilian population. This (offer) has to be verified and tested."
Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa said in Cairo yesterday he fully supported UN Resolution 1973, saying his comments the previous day that the air strikes exceeded the UN mandate had been "misinterpreted."
|UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon|
"We are working in coordination with the United Nations to protect the civilians in Libya."
Mussa said his earlier comments had been motivated by concerns about civilians being caught up in the coalition strikes, as Arab governments did not want to see more deaths in Libya.
Ban, speaking at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, appealed for unity over the implementation of Resolution 1973.
"It is important that the international community speak with one voice to implement the second council resolution," Ban said.
He said that "strong and decisive measures" had only been possible because of the support given by the Arab League for a no-fly zone over Libya.
As the UN chief left after the meeting, he and his 15-strong delegation were mobbed by about 50 pro-Gaddafi demonstrators in the square outside and had to retreat back inside the Arab League's headquarters.
Gaddafi's regime had declared a ceasefire on Friday after Resolution 1973 was passed, but his troops continued attacking Benghazi and other rebel-held centers, sparking action by US, British and French forces from Saturday through Sunday.
However officials said US forces would be taking more of a back seat after the initial effort to destroy Libya's defenses, with other countries, including Arab states, enforcing the no-fly zone.
We will have a military role in the coalition. But we will not have the pre-eminent role," Gates told reporters.
"It is pretty clear that we agreed to use our unique capabilities and with the breadth of those capabilities at the front end of this process, then we expected in a matter of days to be able to turn over the primary responsibility to others."
Washington is keen not to be seen as leading the West's biggest intervention in the Arab world since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, though Arab protests about the action against Gaddafi, who is widely detested, have been muted.
Pentagon spokesman Vice Admiral Bill Gortney said the first strikes, involving B2 stealth bombers flown from the United States and more than 100 cruise missiles launched from ships offshore, had succeeded in "significantly degrading" Libyan air defenses, and a no-fly zone was now effectively in place over the country.
Britain's defense ministry said British forces had joined in the second round of attacks, launching cruise missiles from a Trafalgar Class submarine in the Mediterranean.
But military spokesman Major General John Lorimer said yesterday that British Tornado jets pulled back from attacking Libyan air defense systems overnight because of a fear of hitting civilians.
"As the RAF GR4 Tornados approached the target, further information came to light that identified a number of "Human Shields" were within the intended target area. As a result the decision was taken not to launch weapons," he said in a statement.
"This decision underlines the UK's commitment to the protection of civilians."
Tripoli reported 48 dead and 150 wounded in the first strikes but Pentagon spokesman Gortney said: "There is no indication of any civilian casualties."
Reporters taken to a Tripoli cemetery Sunday by Libyan officials saw many open graves prepared for bodies which failed to appear.
A furious Gaddafi said Sunday all Libyans were armed and ready to fight until victory against what he branded "barbaric aggression".
"We promise you a long, drawn-out war with no limits," he said, speaking on state television but without appearing on camera.
"America, France, or Britain, the Christians that are in a pact against us today, they will not enjoy our oil," he said. "We do not have to retreat from the battlefield because we are defending our land and our dignity."
The weekend blitz caused oil prices to soar again as markets opened yesterday.
Analysts said traders feared more damage to oil installations in Libya and the spreading of unrest to other parts of the oil-rich Middle East.