Thursday, March 24, 2011

Fifth night of airstrikes unable to stop Gadhafi

Fifth night of airstrikes unable to stop Gadhafi

Tripoli, Libya (CNN) -- Focusing now on Libyan ground forces, coalition jets pounded targets for a fifth consecutive night but so far have been unable to stop Moammar Gadhafi's armor.

A resident in Misrata told CNN that he heard an explosion and that snipers loyal to Gadhafi were operating from rooftops in the besieged western city.

Earlier, Gadhafi's tanks attacked Misrata's main hospital filled with 400 people, half of whom were patients, a witness said. At one point, the shelling went on for 40 long minutes -- without respite.

"Now, fortunately, no more shelling, but the situation is so serious that all the teams here -- the doctors, the patients -- are paralyzed, scared," the witness said, imploring the international community to intervene in the name of civilians under attack.

The situation, he said, was too dangerous for ambulances to leave the hospital. The hospital had no electricity and was relying on a generator.

Witnesses in Misrata are not being identified by CNN because of security reasons. Journalists have no access to the city and cannot independently confirm reports of violence.

The battle for Misrata, Libya's third largest city, has been ongoing for more than a week.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Thursday that many residents remain trapped in their homes without electricity and communications and a dwindling supply of food and water.

Explosions could also be heard just east of the Lybian capital Thursday.

Coalition planes struck the suburb of Tajura, a Libyan government official said and state television showed footage of what it said were the charred bodies of 18 people -- civilians and military -- killed in the attack.

Western leaders have repeatedly denied reports of civilian casualties.

"It is not likely that civilians were a part of any airstrike today," said Joint Task Force Operation Odyssey Dawn Lt. Cmdr. Jim Hoeft.

In the east, Gadhafi's tanks were shelling Ajdabiya, where fierce fighting had occurred the day before. Loyalist forces still controlled the northern and western gates to the city.

"This underlines the appalling danger its inhabitants would be in without coalition action, as do continued threats by Gadhafi forces to 'massacre' residents in areas under bombardment," Hague said.

An opposition member told CNN that an isolated Gadhafi unit had raised a white flag but when the rebels approached, the unit began firing.

The coalition has been able to establish a no-fly zone that spans from east to west along Libya's coastline. A U.S. official said though the rebels are in a better position, Gadhafi's forces still have the upper hand.

They remain capable of carrying out attacks on the opposition, are relatively well-organized and continue to fight effectively, the official said.

 As the Libyan war entered the sixth day, questions persisted over who will take command of the coalition.

"These coalition operations are currently under U.S. command," Hague said. "But we want them to transition to NATO command and control as quickly as possible."

NATO already has ships in the Mediterranean Sea to enforce an arms embargo.

"We need agreement to unified command and control for it to be robust, and we expect to get that soon," Hague said.

Critics are also calling for a clearer explanation of U.S. policy in the North African nation.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who just wrapped up a five-day trip to Latin America, has insisted that the goal of the U.N.-sanctioned military mission is strictly to prevent a humanitarian crisis.

Specifically, the U.N. mandate calls for protecting Libyan rebels and other civilians from attacks by forces loyal to the strongman.

U.S. officials have indicated they hope Gadhafi will be removed quickly by forces currently loyal to him, though they haven't publicly called for a coup

The international airstrikes against Libyan military positions began over the weekend after Gadhafi defied a United Nations-mandated cease-fire to stop attacks against civilians.

The war was sparked in February by protests demanding an end to Gadhafi's nearly 42-year rule. The Libyan strongman responded with force against civilians, prompting the international community to take action.

France launched the air campaign, and Britain and the United States followed. Britain has announced an international meeting for next Tuesday to assess the situation in Libya.