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The Toronto Star

Libya Bombing Called a Success by U.S. Officials

Mitch Potter

CAIRO—As a second night of coalition bombs targeted Tripoli, with at least one blast registering close to Moammar Gadhafi’s compound, regrouping rebel fighters in eastern Libya began surging west to engage anew with the wounded regime’s forces.

The dramatic reversal came amid more mixed signals from the Gadhafi loyalists as a UN-backed no-fly zone took hold over Libya. The Libyan army declared a second ceasefire Sunday night after ignoring the first, even as the embattled leader vented fury on state television, vowing a “long, drawn out war” against the “new Nazis” flying overhead.

The rapid pace of events rattled nerves throughout the Middle East, as a U.S.-led onslaught of 124 Tomahawk cruise missile strikes that began Saturday night awakened memories of the “shock and awe” attacks on Baghdad in 2003 that signalled the controversial beginning of the end for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Arab League backing, seen as crucial to the Western-led mission over Libya, appeared to falter early Sunday as the sheer intensity of the attacks began to register.

Libyan state television claimed at least 64 people were killed in the initial wave of strikes and 150 more wounded. But foreign reporters in Tripoli under the watchful eye of the Gadhafi regime were prevented from visiting hospitals to verify the claim and interview casualties.

Senior U.S. officials discounted claims of civilian casualties and declared the initial phase of strikes “very effective,” all but erasing the Gadhafi regime’s air defences, clearing the way for allied control of the skies over the top third of the country.

Additional strikes by U.S., British and French warplanes early Sunday tore through dozens of tanks, trucks and support vehicles belonging to Gadhafi’s ground army approximately 16 kilometres south of the Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city and the epicentre of the pro-democracy revolution.

The attack, which included strikes by B-2 stealth bombers, left the Gadhafi army in “significant stress and suffering from a good deal of confusion,” said U.S. Vice-Admiral William Gortney.

Despite plumes of smoke rising late Sunday after air strikes near Gadhafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli, Gortney told reporters at the Pentagon. “We are not going after Gadhafi.”

The strikes, he said, were strictly intended to immobilize Libyan surface-to-air missile sites deemed a threat to coalition aircraft as they move in to keep Gadhafi’s air force grounded in accordance with United Nations Security Council resolution 1973.

Gortney said the coalition struck Gadhafi’s mechanized ground forces to “protect the Libyan people” as the tanks began advancing toward Benghazi, citing UN authorization to defend Libyan civilians by any means necessary.

But with rebel forces — in large part, civilian Libyan protesters who took up arms in recent weeks as pro-Gadhafi’s soldiers moved to quell the revolt — now regrouping to take the fight to Gadhafi, the Pentagon was at a loss to explain how it would respond to new battles instigated by the pro-democracy side.

“I don’t have that answer yet,” said Gortney.

The blurry line between protecting civilians and providing the tipping point for Gadhafi’s ouster is emerging as a central political problem for the hastily formed coalition, which appears to lack consensus on the ultimate goals of intervention.

And the problem is likely to get bigger as the coalition itself enlarges, with warplanes from Spain, Belgium, Turkey and Qatar expected to join the no-fly enforcement effort in the coming hours. The mission has been dubbed Operation Odyssey Dawn.

Canada’s contribution of six CF-18s, together with 150 support personnel, are now at a small airbase in Trapani, Sicily, but remain at least a day away from joining the effort. One of the factors behind the delay is believed to be intense briefings to help pilots distinguish between pro-Gadhafi and rebel forces, which use similar and in some cases identical equipment, according to CBC News.

Gadhafi’s forces, which pushed deep into Benghazi early Saturday just hours before the allied attacks began, prompting panic and triggering an exodus of civilians from the largest rebel city, are largely gone.

One rebel loyalist, Muhammed Muttardi, told the Star a wave of relief washed over the city as the eleventh-hour intervention arrived. But the threat had not vanished entirely, as rebel forces combed Benghazi in search of “the rest of the pro-Gadhafi Revolutionary Committees,” the prime enforcers of the regime’s 42-year rule.

Elsewhere, rebel sources said pro-Gadhafi forces continued to pound the rebel-held western city of Misurata with heavy shelling and tank fire Sunday, entwining their armour inside an urban environment.

The attack was matched by another dose of defiance from Gadhafi himself, who raged for 15 minutes in a phone call to Libyan state television, blasting the international assault as “a colonial crusader aggression that may ignite another large-scale crusader war.” He vowed to stand firm, promising to distribute weapons far and wide among his loyalists.

Gadhafi’s voice was broadcast over a still image of a statue of a fist clenching a downed U.S. plane — a monument to the memory of 1986 strikes on Libya ordered by then-president Ronald Reagan.

But late Sunday night, the alternating current of mixed message switched back to conciliatory, with Libyan army spokesman Milad al-Fuqhi announcing an “immediate ceasefire everywhere in Libya starting from 9 o’clock this evening.”

A previous ceasefire announced Friday by Libya’s Foreign Ministry amounted to nothing as Gadhafi’s forces accelerated their ill-fated drive to Benghazi, undermining confidence that this time things would be different.

“I sincerely hope and urge the Libyan authorities to keep their word,” United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Cairo. “They have been continuing to attack the civilian population. This has to be verified and tested.”

The White House said late Sunday that it would not recognize the second ceasefire declaration.

“Our view at this point . . . is that it isn’t true, or has been immediately violated,” White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon told reporters.

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