Coalition forces have carried out a seventh day of air and missile strikes against the Libyan regime’s forces as Nato appointed a Canadian general to oversee the campaign.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy held out hopes of a diplomatic initiative to end the conflict, announcing that Britain and France were jointly preparing a “political and diplomatic” solution.
“There will certainly be a Franco-British initiative to clearly show the solution is not only military but also political and diplomatic,” Sarkozy said referring to key talks in London on Tuesday.
Nato named three-star Canadian general, Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, to run Nato’s Libya operations, enforcing a UN-mandated no-fly zone and arms embargo.
Bouchard will also take command of the entire military campaign to protect civilians from troops loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi when and if the 28-member alliance takes the reins from a US-led coalition.
Qatar meanwhile became the first Arab country to take part in the military campaign, its air force and the French military announced.
Two Mirage fighter planes from Qatar carried out an “air interdiction mission” alongside two French jets, the French military said on its website.
Coalition war planes meanwhile pounded Gaddafi’s forces in the strategic eastern town of Ajdabiya, boosting rebel efforts to launch new offensives.
Two huge explosions were heard from the city and smoke clouds billowed into the sky as the pace of air strikes escalated.
Terrified residents were fleeing the city, 160 kilometres south of the rebel strongholds of Benghazi and Tobruk.
A French fighter jet destroyed an artillery battery overnight outside Ajdabiya.
Gaddafi forces also pounded the rebel-held city of Misrata, 214 kilometres east of Tripoli, with artillery last night, killing a mother and her four children, a witness said.
“The artillery shelling has been going on since Thursday night,” said the witness contacted by telephone.
“They are firing on everything that moves.”
“There is no water, no electricity and supplies are running short,” in Misrata, Libya’s third city, he said, adding that residents were cowering indoors.
On Thursday a doctor treating the wounded at a hospital in Misrata said attacks by Gaddafi’s forces since March 18 “have killed 109 people and wounded 1300 others, 81 of whom are in serious condition”.
Anti-aircraft fire had raked the Libyan skies overnight, with at least three explosions shaking the capital Tripoli and the eastern suburb of Tajura.
At least one blast was heard from the centre of the city, while others came from Tajura, home to military bases.
US warships and submarines had fired 16 new Tomahawk cruise missiles at Libyan targets in the 24 hours to 0500 GMT yesterday (6pm last night NZST), the Pentagon said, adding that coalition war planes carried out 153 sorties over the same period.
The total number of Tomahawks launched at Libya rose to at least 170.
Libyan state television said “civilian and military sites in Tripoli and Tajura” had come under fire from “long-range missiles”.
A thick pall of smoke rose above Tajura and streets were practically deserted despite Friday prayers.
Hooded, armed men stood guard at the main junctions.
Meanwhile Libyan health ministry official Khaled Omar told reporters that 114 people had been killed and 445 wounded in four days of coalition strikes on Libya between Sunday and Wednesday.
Omar said 104 people were killed in Tripoli and its suburbs, while 10 were killed in Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown, some 600 kilometres south of the capital.
Libya’s official Jana news agency announced that Gaddafi had decided to promote all serving soldiers, officers and security agents, as well as interior ministry employees.
The report came a day after the United States urged Libyan troops to stop fighting.
In Addis Ababa, a high-level delegation sent by the embattled Libyan leader joined African Union talks on the crisis, which also included EU, UN, Arab League and Islamic Conference representatives and said Tripoli was ready to implement a road map envisaged by the conference.
The AU roadmap calls for an immediate end to all hostilities, “cooperation on the part of the relevant Libyan authorities to facilitate humanitarian aid,” and “protection for all foreign nationals, including African migrant workers”.
At Nato headquarters, military planners were drawing up plans to take over the broader mission in anticipation of a decision by ambassadors of the 28-nation alliance on Sunday, Nato officials said.
Until the alliance agrees to take over all operations, Nato’s task will be limited to preventing Gaddafi’s jets from flying while the coalition will continue to target artillery on the ground.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he expected Nato to take full command of military operations in Libya “within a matter of days”.
On Thursday, a Libyan war plane that had dared to flout the no-fly zone was destroyed by a French fighter after it landed in Misrata.
Coalition air strikes since Saturday have been targeting air defences in a bid to protect civilians under the terms of a UN resolution.
The US general in charge of the operation, General Carter Ham, said coalition forces imposing the no-fly zone “cannot be sure” there have been no civilian deaths, but are trying to be “very precise”.
The Pentagon said 12 countries were now taking part in the coalition seeking to enforce the no-fly zone, including Arab countries Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “significant progress” had been made in just five days, but that the “danger is far from over,” and Gaddafi’s forces “remain a serious threat to the safety of the people”.
She also underscored “crucial” Arab support for the operation, and praised Qatar and the UAE for joining the coalition.
And US President Barack Obama held a conference call on Friday with key congressional leaders on Libya and aides said he would speak to Americans soon amid rising domestic scrutiny of the mission.
Meanwhile, Libyan authorities moved to scotch rumours circulating in Tripoli that a fuel shortage was imminent, saying oil distribution companies had “large quantities” of fuel.
Reports of an oil shortage had circulated in recent days in the Libyan capital prompting endless queues at petrol stations.