TRIPOLI, Libya — American and European militaries intensified their barrage of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces by air and sea on Sunday, as the mission moved beyond taking away his ability to use Libyan airspace, to obliterating his hold on the ground as well, allied officials said.
Rebel forces, battered and routed by loyalist fighters just the day before, began to regroup in the east as allied warplanes destroyed dozens of government armored vehicles near the rebel capital, Benghazi, leaving a field of burned wreckage along the coastal road to the city. By nightfall, the rebels had pressed almost 40 miles back west toward the strategic crossroads city of Ajdabiya, witnesses and rebel forces said. And they seemed to consolidate control of Benghazi despite heavy fighting there against loyalist forces on Saturday.
There was evidence, too, that the allies were striking more targets in and around Tripoli, the capital. More explosions could be seen or heard near the city center, where an international press corps was kept under tight security constraints. Recurring bursts of antiaircraft guns and a prolonged shower of tracers arced over the capital on Sunday night.
A day after a summit meeting in Paris set the military operation in motion, a vital Arab participant in the agreement expressed unhappiness with the way the strikes were unfolding. The former chairman 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 Libya.
“What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians,” he said, referring to Libyan government claims that allied bombardment had killed dozens of civilians. But reporters seeking proof have been offered none to account for even part of that number. Around 10 p.m., an explosion thundered from Colonel Qaddafi’s personal compound in Tripoli, and a column of smoke rose above it, suggesting that the allied forces had struck either his residence there or the nearby barracks of his personal guards. A group of foreign journalists were bused to the compound early on Monday morning and shown a building partially destroyed by a bomb. But those who attended reported no evidence of casualties.
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 removing him.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, also focused on those goals, talking about how allied forces had grounded Colonel Qaddafi’s aircraft and worked to protect civilians — both objectives stated by theUnited Nations Security Council in approving the military mission. “We hit a lot of targets, focused on his command and control, focused on his air defense, and actually attacked some of his forces on the ground in the vicinity of Benghazi,” Admiral Mullen told Fox News.
But the campaign may be balancing multiple goals. President Obama, Secretary of StateHillary Rodham Clinton and British and French leaders have also talked of a broader policy objective — that Colonel Qaddafi must leave power. In his comments on Sunday, Admiral Mullen suggested that objective lay outside the bounds of the military campaign, saying on NBC that Colonel Qaddafi’s remaining in power after the United States military accomplished its mission was “potentially one outcome.”
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, on a flight to Russia, said he was concerned about that possible result. Though he praised the mission’s “successful start,” he cautioned that a partitioned Libya, with rebels holding the east and Colonel Qaddafi the West, could bring trouble. “I think all countries probably would like to see Libya remain a unified state,” Mr. Gates said. “Having states in the region begin to break up because of internal differences is a formula for real instability in the future.”
Gen. Carter F. Ham, who as the head of the United States Africa Command is overseeing the operation, said in an e-mail on Sunday that “the initial strikes have had, generally, the effects we sought. Fixed air defense sites, particularly the longer-range systems, appear to no longer be operating.”
He said that “some ground forces in the vicinity of Bengazi were destroyed. Some appear to be at least static, if not moving back south and west.” He said there were few signs of fighting in the city itself. The general praised the coordination with Britain, France and other coalition partners, and said he expected additional countries to join the operation “in the coming days.”
The American and French militaries both said that Qatar would join the military operation, which would be the first Arab military force to explicitly sign on. But there were no details on what role the Qatar forces would take.
The Americans, working with the British, French and others, flew a wider array of missions than the day before, when Navy cruise missile barrages were their main weapons. They deployed B-2 stealth bombers, F-16 and F-15 fighter jets and Harrier attack jets flown by the Marine Corps striking at Libyan ground forces, air defenses and airfields. Navy electronic warplanes, EA-18G Growlers, jammed Libyan radar and communications. British pilots flew many of the bombing missions, and French, British and American planes all conducted ground attacks near Benghazi, American commanders said.
Admiral Gortney said that allied strikes against Colonel Qaddafi’s forces had been “very effective.” But he warned that coalition forces had not hit Libyan mobile surface-to-air missile batteries and that shoulder-launched missiles, called Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems, or Manpads, also remained. “There are quite a few of those out there,” he said.
Near Misurata, the last major Western city held by the rebels, B-2 bombers destroyed aircraft shelters at an airfield, the admiral said. And a rebel spokesman within the besieged city, giving his name as Muhammad, said allied airstrikes had destroyed a military convoy coming to reinforce the troops encircling the city. But he said that Saturday night’s strikes had done little to stop the Qaddafi forces from shelling the city and its port, blowing up two power stations. A rebel who said he was a doctor said seven had died and the city was without water or power.
Still, he remained confident that the new help could help turn the momentum toward his fighters. “If the international community takes care of the supply lines,” he said, “I assurre you that we can take care of whatever is inside of Misurata.”
“Tripoli will rise up,” he predicted. “If they see his power bases crumbling I am sure they will rise up. We want the international community to go all the way to bomb this bloody dictator into submission.”
Earlier Sunday, Colonel Qaddafi delivered a fresh and defiant tirade against the allied military action, pledging retaliation and saying his forces would fight a long war to victory.
He was speaking in a telephone call to state television, which, apparently for security reasons, did not disclose his whereabouts. The Libyan leader has not been seen in public since the United States and European countries began their strikes. “We will fight you if you continue your attacks on us,” Mr. Qaddafi said. “Those who are on the land will win the battle,” he declared, warning without explanation that “oil will not be left to the United States, France and Britain.”
Libyan officials and state television have said that dozens of Libyan civilians were killed in the air attacks. But an Indonesian newscaster, Andini Effendi, reported Sunday that she was able to visit two Tripoli hospitals after the airstrikes early on Sunday and found no influx of casualties, only empty ambulances. State television did not show any scenes of destruction, and Libyan officials declined to show any to visiting journalists either.
Instead, they promised Sunday to bring foreign journalists to a funeral for civilians killed in the attacks. But the funeral turned out to be more of a pro-Qaddafi political rally, and the true number of dead remained a mystery.
On the way to the funeral a bus full of journalists was parked waiting for about 25 minutes near a waterfront cemetery, until the arrival of several truckloads of hundreds of Qaddafi supporters waving green flags and wearing green headscarves. Then, when journalists entered the cemetery amid gunfire in the air and pro-Qaddafi chants, they found three freshly covered graves and 24 empty cinderblock holes.
One of the recent burials was said to have died of causes unrelated to the attacks. Another was said to belong to a 3-month-old baby girl, Siham Atabeeb, who was said to have been killed when a bomb hit her home. But neither of her parents nor any siblings were there, and people who said they were more distant relatives told conflicting stories about whether her mother was also wounded and whether she had any siblings.
People around the other fresh grave also said they were relatives, but people gave conflicting descriptions of the deceased — he was 25 or 29; he was killed in his home, driving by a military base, or walking in a neighborhood near the Qaddafi compound; he was a taxi driver, unemployed, or in some other profession.
Copyright 2011 by The New York Times