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NATO Reaches Deal to Enforce No-Fly Zone Over Libya

7:30 p.m. ET | Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday evening that the United States welcomed the decision by the NATO alliance to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya — but not other military operations there.

Speaking at the State Department, Clinton said that forces loyal to leader Moammar Gadhafi have been pushed back but remain a threat to Libya’s people. She also said that a humanitarian disaster had been averted in Benghazi, the rebels’ stronghold, and that Gaddafi’s air force and air defenses were now largely ineffective.

While acknowledging the U.S. primacy in the early days of the operation, Secretary Clinton said there had been a significant drop in the number of U.S. aircraft flying missions as those of other nations increased.

“All 28 allies have also now authorized military authorities to develop an operations plan for NATO to take on the broader civilian protection mission,” she said. “NATO is well-suited to coordinating this international effort.”

Watch Clinton’s full remarks:

Also, the United Arab Emirates has agreed to add a dozen aircraft to the international coalition enforcing the no-fly zone, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Friday. “I spoke … to the crown prince of the UAE, who told me that the Emirates have decided to commit 12 planes to the coalition,” he told a news conference after the first day of a European Union summit.

The UAE becomes the second Arab state to send aircraft to the coalition after Qatar, which sent two fighters and two military transport planes to Crete.

6:30 p.m. ET | After days of negotiation, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has announced that the alliance will enforce the no-fly zone over Libya.

Rasmussen said late Thursday the 28 member nations have agreed to act in order to protect Libyan civilians from attacks by the forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi, the AP reports.

Turkey had opposed taking that step, but the Turkish foreign minister said his government’s demands had been met.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to make a statement soon on the agreement.

5 p.m. ET | In a briefing with reporters at the Pentagon Thursday, Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, director of the military’s Joint Staff, emphasized the cooperation of international allies in the Libya effort. “It’s fair to say that the coalition is growing in both size and capability every day,” he said, adding that the “focus right now is on several things. We continue to patrol the no-fly zone and we’re looking to further strengthen it … we are vigorously planning to enable the delivery of humanitarian assistance by interested governments and non-governmental agencies.”

“We are working very hard on the military side to be ready to hand over” responsibilities in the mission, Gortney said. He added that much of the planning has been hurried, with the U.N. Security Council’s resolution passing just one week ago.

He said Gadhafi’s forces continue to attack despite an initial promise of a cease-fire, and that “regime operations in and around Misrata and Zintan have not halted.”

Gortney said the U.S. military is “executing the mission that’s been assigned to us” but “attacking with tactical aircraft on forces inside of a city,” instead targeting their supply lines and logistics in an effort to cut them off and render them less effective. The air campaign on clearly discernible targets is meant to avoid collateral damage and civilian casualties.

1:30 p.m. ET | France says it has destroyed a Libyan military jet that was flying in violation of the U.N.-sanctioned no-fly zone. The small plane had reportedly just landed in Misrata when it was hit.

NATO ships continued to patrol along the Mediterranean coast to enforce an arms blockade, as talks continued to determine which nation or nations will assume leadership over the Libya mission.

Libyan state television purported to show bodies it claims were from civilian victims of the air strikes in Tripoli, the capital, while rebels have countered that the evidence was staged.

Libyan rebels flash the victory sign as they collecting shells out of an unidentified tank near the key city of Ajdabiya on March 23, 2011 as loyalist forces have encircled the town. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images) Libyan rebels flash the victory sign as they collecting shells out of an unidentified tank near the key city of Ajdabiya on March 23, 2011 as loyalist forces have encircled the town. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite an intense campaign of international air strikes, forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi continued to barrage the western city of Misrata and other key parts of the country Thursday. Residents of Misrata are largely cut off from communication and are in lacking power, food and water. The intense fighting has prevented adequate humanitarian aid, with local hospitals inundated and aid groups unable to reach the most severely affected areas. A hospital in Misrata was reportedly attacked by Gafhafi’s forces.

Allied air strikes pounded assets in the capital of Tripoli. Heavy fighting continued in Ajdabiya, to the east, a gateway to the opposition’s de facto headquarters of Benghazi.

Rear Adm. Gerard Hueber, chief of staff of Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn, said the air campaign has crippled Gadhafi’s air forces, but acknowledged that the densely populated areas where there is ground fighting are “extremely complex and difficult” to target.

The no-fly zone mandated by the U.N. Security Council resolution has been largely enforced by NATO, although Qatar is scheduled to begin fly-overs this weekend. Allies hope for greater involvement by the Arab League, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy has expressed concern about the mission being led by NATO instead of Arab nations.

The United States is eager to step back from its leadership role, although there is no clear indication yet of what country will bear that responsibility. Participating nations have been invited to London next week for talks to determine the next steps in the campaign.

The United States’ exact military role, which was designed quickly in conjunction with the resolution, is still being determined. In a letter to President Obama on Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, questioned the clarity of the mission in Libya.

“I and many other members of the House of Representatives are troubled that U.S. military resources were committed to war without clearly defining for the American people, the Congress, and our troops what the mission in Libya is and what America’s role is in achieving that mission,” Speaker Boehner wrote. “In fact, the limited, sometimes contradictory, case made to the American people by members of your Administration has left some fundamental questions about our engagement unanswered.”

Rep. Boehner requested answers as to why congressional leaders had not been consulted in the decision process, saying that the president had consulted in more detail with “foreign entities,” including the United Nations and Arab League.

President Obama has said that the goal in Libya is to protect civilians, not to replace Gadhafi. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly urged Gadhafi to step down, saying he “has lost his legitimacy to govern and the confidence of his people.”

James Foley of GlobalPost reports on the outskirts of Ajdabiya and Benghazi, where rebel forces have dug in to fight Gadhafi forces:

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