NINE powerful explosions shook the city of Sirte, a strategic target for the rebels whose advance towards Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s home town was halted last night, despite earlier boasts of victory.

Sirte, 360km east of Tripoli, is the next target of rebels as they push towards the capital from their eastern bastion, Benghazi.

Despite help from Western coalition forces that yesterday mounted air raids over the city, raids linked to the nine explosives blasts, the rebel advance was halted on the outskirts of Bin Jawad, about 140km east of Sirte, an AFP reporter said.

The rebels on Sunday seized Bin Jawad after retaking the key oil town of Ras Lanuf as they advanced with the support of coalition airstrikes.

But last night they came under heavy machine-gun fire from regime loyalists in pick-ups on the road from Bin Jawad to Nofilia and, beyond that, Sirte.

The insurgents pulled back into Bin Jawad and opened up with heavy artillery.

The streets of Sirte, with a population of about 120,000 people, were quiet and deserted yesterday and it was not immediately possible to establish whether the overnight raids had caused any damage.

The city was still under the control of Gaddafi’s forces, who were patrolling the streets in civilian cars or pick-ups daubed with mud as makeshift camouflage.

Usama, a pro-Gaddafi militiaman, said all was quiet in Sirte, and that he was “leaving for the front at Bin Jawad”.

The events came the same day as NATO agreed to take full command from the UN of all international military operations in and around the country.

Coming ahead of US President Barack Obama’s speech today to address US involvement in Libya, the NATO decision frees the US to play a more subordinate role in the operations.

The decision extends NATO’s responsibilities beyond enforcing a no-fly zone and an arms embargo to the protection of civilians. But it doesn’t change the nature of the military mission.

The hope for the West is that a continuation of military pressure on Gaddafi’s forces, even at somewhat lower levels in coming days, combined with continued forward movement by the rebels, will be enough to make the Libyan army either buckle or turn on the Libyan leader. That would produce the outcome the West hopes for – the removal of Gaddafi – but one that isn’t the explicit goal of the military operation.

In Tripoli, massive explosions rocked the city starting about 9:15pm local time as fighter jets were heard over the city, suggesting that air strikes had resumed on targets in the capital after a lull since Friday.

In Washington, Defence Secretary Robert Gates downplayed Libya’s role in US affairs, even as he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to defend US military action there. “I don’t think it’s a vital interest of the United States, but we clearly have an interest there,” Dr Gates said.

Dr Gates said on NBC yesterday the US wouldn’t take out Gaddafi using military means, but stressed that the US and allied countries were employing other measures, including economic sanctions, to pressure the regime.

In Mr Obama’s address today, he is expected to discuss why the situation required US intervention, as well as what level of involvement American forces will maintain in the future. He will also try to convince the public that there is an end game in Libya, an administration official said.

Speaking after the decision to take command, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance’s actions would be guided by the UN Security Council resolution passed on March 17 to defend civilians, “nothing more, nothing less”.

A senior US official said civilians would be protected whether they were being threatened by government forces or by the opposition, potentially putting NATO in the position in the future of attacking rebel forces if they were threatening civilians.

The fate of Sirte, analysts say, will help clarify what happens next in Libya. If rebels can push through the town, they will have a relatively clear road to Tripoli. A defeat in Sirte, on the other hand, could lead to stalemate.

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