Strikes raise pressure on Gadhafi, rebels
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BENGHAZI, Libya — Fighter jets hit aircraft and a crossroads military base deep inside Libya on Thursday and NATO sailors prepared to board suspect ships, blocking new weapons and foreign fighters from resupplying Moammar Gadhafi's depleted forces by land, sea and air. France set a timeframe on the international action at days or weeks — not months.
The possibility of a looming deadline raised pressure on rebel forces. So did the arms embargo, which keeps both Gadhafi and his outgunned opposition from getting more weapons. The rebels were so strapped Thursday that they handed out sneakers — and not guns — at one of their checkpoints.
"We are facing cannons, T-72 and T-92 tanks, so what do we need? We need anti-tank weapons, things like that," said Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, a military spokesman told reporters in Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital. "We are preparing our army now. Before there was no army, from now there is an idea to prepare a new army with new armaments and new morals."
The Gadhafi regime appeared equally hard-pressed, asking international forces to spare its broadcast and communications infrastructure.
"Communications, whether by phones or other uses, are civilian and for the good of the Libyan nation to help us provide information, knowledge and coordinate everyday life. If these civilian targets are hit, it will make life harder for millions of civilians around Libya," Moussa Ibrahim, a government spokesman, told reporters in Tripoli.
Representatives for the two sides were expected to attend an African Union meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Friday, according to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who described it as a part of an effort to reach a cease-fire and political solution.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the international action would last days or possibly weeks, but not months. But he told RTL radio that in addition to protecting civilians, the mission "is also about putting Gadhafi's opponents, who are fighting for democracy and freedom, in a situation of taking back the advantage."
NATO appeared to move closer to assuming command of the military operation in Libya when Turkey's foreign minister was quoted as saying an agreement has been reached.
Libyan state television showed blackened and mangled bodies that it said were victims of airstrikes in Tripoli. Rebels have accused Gadhafi's forces of taking bodies from the morgue and pretending they are civilian casualties.
A U.S. intelligence report on March 21, the day after coalition missiles attacked Gadhafi's Bab al-Aziziya compound in the capitol, said that a senior Gadhafi aide was told to take bodies from a morgue and place them at the scene of the bomb damage, to be displayed for visiting journalists. A senior U.S. defense official revealed the contents of the intelligence report on condition of anonymity because it was classified secret.
The French strikes hit a base about 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of the Libyan coastline, as well as a Libyan combat plane that had just landed outside the strategic city of Misrata, France's military said.
In Tripoli, Libyan deputy foreign minister Khaled Kaim said that the "military compound at Juffra" was among the targets hit. Juffra is one of at least two air bases deep in Libya's interior, on main routes that lead from neighboring countries in the Sahara region that have been suppliers of arms and fighters for the Gadhafi regime.
The town of Sabha, about 385 miles (620 kilometers) south of Tripoli, has another air base and international airport and is a major transit point for the ethnic Tuareg fighters from Mali and Niger who have fought for Gadhafi for the past two decades. Malian officials say hundreds of Tuareg men have left to fight in Libya against the recent uprising.
Abdel-Rahman Barkuli, a Libyan in exile originally from Sabha, said communications with his family there were abruptly cut on Wednesday night and heavy security is preventing residents from moving in or out.
He said residents in Sabha reported airstrikes before dawn: two targeted radars and one targeted a military camp. The airstrikes apparently bypassed a mountain facility that stores ammunition and heavy weaponry for the Gadhafi regime.
"Thank God they didn't bomb the mountain because it would be a disaster" for the civilians living nearby, he said.
Barkuli said members of two anti-Gadhafi tribes in the city were rounded up early in the protests that began Feb. 15. "No one knows anything about their whereabouts," he said.