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NATO to Enforce No-Fly Zone as Libyan Rebels Seek Anti-Tank Weapons

March 24, 2011 at 6:11 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: The international campaign of airstrikes extended deep into Libya today. French warplanes claimed a kill in the no-fly zone. They also raided far south of Tripoli to disrupt the flow of mercenaries to the government side. Elsewhere, rebels reported gains in the embattled port of Misrata, killing 30 government snipers.

John Ray of Independent Television News is in Tripoli and reports on the day’s events.

JOHN RAY: It was the French who flew the first missions over Libya at the weekend, and now it is a French warplane that has destroyed the first Libyan jet to break the no-fly zone.

A military training aircraft was hit by an air-to-ground missile just after it landed near Misrata. The siege of the rebel-held town has been eased today, though not yet lifted. Many of Gadhafi’s tanks that wrought havoc here have been pulled back or destroyed by coalition attacks. But the threat has not yet passed.

Events are hard to verify, but these images, posted to the Internet, appear to show snipers yesterday picking targets. In Tripoli, the bombing has reached a new intensity, the city shaken by a series of explosions in the early morning, leaving fires burning amid the wreckage of an army transport depot.

Pictures from state television seem to show a soldier wounded in the attack. Authorities here say civilians were among the 18 killed — claims impossible to check.

In the capital, there are still displays of loyalty played out in front of the international media.

This looks like it’s part of an increasingly desperate and sometimes bizarre propaganda effort. These people say they’re going to march all the way to Benghazi, even though the route would take them past the fighting in Misrata and across rebel front lines.

A week ago, Gadhafi’s forces were confident of victory. Now, even among his die-hard supporters, five days of bombing have sown the seeds of doubt.

JEFFREY BROWN: In eastern Libya, refugees streamed out of the city of Ajdabiya. They said the situation there is worsening, with no water or power, as Gadhafi’s forces continue shelling the city.

The rebels said they need anti-tank weapons in order to break the siege.

In Washington, a top Pentagon official, Vice Adm. – Adm. William Gortney, said U.S. planes are deliberately passing up targets inside cities.

VICE ADM. WILLIAM GORTNEY, U.S. Joint Staff: The reason that we’re not doing it is because of collateral damage concerns. And so, unless we can find a mechanism to achieve the effect without harming the very people that we’re trying to protect is the challenge there.

That’s hard work. That’s a very, very hard task to do, and we’re trying to do it and those — to the best of our ability.

JIM LEHRER: The French foreign minister, Alain Juppe, said today the air operation may last days or weeks but not months. For now, he said, government attacks on Misrata make it clear that the coalition cannot stop.

ALAIN JUPPE, French foreign minister (through translator): He still has military means on the ground, like cannons. And by bombarding a hospital, it’s a sign that this regime is barbaric and so unacceptable for the international community. So, we will carry on the airstrikes.

JIM LEHRER: Late today, NATO members agreed on taking over the Libya operation. The NATO secretary-general said the alliance was acting to protect Libyan civilians. Turkey had opposed taking that step, but the Turkish foreign minister said today his government’s demands have now been met. He said the U.S. and its partners could hand off the operation in a day or two.