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Rebels Take Back Several Key Cities; Advance on Gadhafi’s Home Town, Sirte

4:45 p.m. ET | Vice Admiral Bill Gortney briefed reporters in a news conference at the Pentagon on Monday. He hailed progress in some cities but said he believes the regime is digging in at Sirte and heavy fighting continues in Misrata.

As air strikes began a second week, Gortney said, “I am comfortable telling you that we still have not received a single confirmed report of civilian casualties caused by the coalition.”

He said Qatari pilots have flown several missions and that fighter craft from the United Arab Emirates are preparing to launch additional military operations. “The U.S. military participating in this operation is, as we have said all along, changed to one primarily of support,” he said, pointing to refueling missions, surveillance and other support functions. The “commitment is very much shared by others, and now it’s going to be led by others,” he added.

Gortney said that despite the gains that rebels made during the course of international air strikes, “we’re not coordinating with the opposition” directly, though the missions have been careful to “identify friend from foe” on the ground.

Libyan rebels fire missiles towards forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in a location close to the town of Bin Jawad, which was seized yesterday by rebel forces, on March 28, 2011. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

In yet another reversal of momentum against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and government forces, opposition rebels appear to be in control of several cities, including Ajdabiya, the eastern city that was the focus of a sustained assault by government forces — and coalition air strikes — last week.

Rebels are now advancing toward Sirte, Gadhafi’s hometown, aided by continued international air strikes. Sirte is located between the opposition stronghold of Benghazi in the east and the capital, Tripoli. The reversal puts them in control of several key oil ports along the country’s Mediterranean coast.

On Sunday evening, Libyan state television said that the city of Misrata, to the west, was “secure.”

Qatar became the first Arab nation to diplomatically recognize the opposition movement as the legitimate government of Libya. Qatar was also the first nation to fly its own jets in support of the no-fly zone over the country.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended the U.S. involvement in Libya over the weekend, saying the mission was driven by humanitarian concerns. Gates said that despite the air strikes, the situation is “eventually is going to have to be settled by the Libyans themselves…the president has put some very strict limitations in terms of what we are prepared to do.”

President Obama is scheduled to deliver a prime time address on the situation in Libya Monday at 7:30 p.m. ET. Following criticism for not involving Congress, the president said in his weekly radio address over the weekend:

“The United States should not — and cannot — intervene every time there’s a crisis somewhere in the world. But I firmly believe that when innocent people are being brutalized; when someone like Gadhafi threatens a bloodbath that could destabilize an entire region; and when the international community is prepared to come together to save many thousands of lives — then it’s in our national interest to act.”

With reporting by Larisa Epatko.

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