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NATO Takes Command of Libya Operation as Allies Step Up Attacks

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization agreed yesterday to take command of all military operations related to enforcement of the United Nations mandate to ensure the safety of civilians in Libya against forces loyal to leader Muammar Qaddafi.

Within hours of that decision, allied warplanes began airstrikes on the capital, Tripoli, and on Sirte, Qaddafi’s birthplace, the Associated Press reported. The strikes on Sirte were the first of the military operation, which begun March 19.

Earlier yesterday, rebel forces advanced west toward Sirte, recapturing the oil port of Ras Lanuf, after U.S. and allied warplanes struck loyalist tanks, artillery and soldiers. Opposition fighters, who last week struggled to move west along the coast from their eastern stronghold of Benghazi, entered Brega early yesterday after retaking Ajdabiya March 26, the Associated Press reported. The rebels later recaptured Ras Lanuf, the British Broadcasting Corp. and Al Jazeera reported.

The Libyan rebellion against Qaddafi’s regime has grown from the kind of popular uprising seen in Egypt and Tunisia into armed conflict, sending oil prices up about 25 percent since it began last month, amid heightened concerns about Middle East crude supplies. Crude oil for May delivery fell 20 cents to settle at $105.40 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange last week.

NATO’s Role

NATO has taken on the mission of protecting civilians and enforcing the no-fly zone and the arms embargo, a senior U.S. administration official said yesterday in a conference call with reporters.

The NATO supreme allied commander, Admiral James Stavridis of the U.S. Navy, is leading the mission, and decisions on what targets to hit will be determined by the council’s military leaders, the official said. NATO’s mission doesn’t include aiding rebel forces seeking to take territory from Qaddafi’s forces, the official said.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement that the transfer of military command from the U.S. to NATO was effective immediately. The office of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron issued a statement calling NATO’s assumption of military command a “significant step.”

A resident of Tripoli, Abdul Jabbar Al-Tarabulsi, described “powerful explosions” in the city in a telephone interview with Al Jazeera television last night. “We are living in a big prison,” he told Al Jazeera. “There is a huge shortage in gas and food. Qaddafi brigades are touring the city, and people are scared to go out because of them.”

No-Fly Zone Completed

In Washington yesterday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told ABC’s “This Week” that the implementation of the no-fly zone over Libya was complete and had “eliminated” Qaddafi’s ability to strike back at rebel-held cities. Now the no-fly zone can be “sustained with a lot less effort,” Gates said.

In the 24 hours ending at 11 a.m. Washington time yesterday, coalition forces flew 167 sorties, or military flights, over Libya, including 88 designed to strike targets on the ground, according to an e-mail from Navy Captain Darryn James, a Pentagon spokesman. Since the Libyan operation began, the U.S. has flown 884 sorties, while coalition allies have flown 540, he said.

Attack Near Misrata

The coalition has been seeking to push back Qaddafi’s forces from cities including Misrata, a rebel-held town in western Libya. A posting on the French defense ministry’s website reported that French fighter aircraft struck Qaddafi armored vehicles and weapons near Misrata and Zintan yesterday. Misrata has been besieged by Qaddafi’s forces for several weeks.

Libyan state-run television accused the allied forces of causing a “massacre” among civilians in Ajdabiya as their warplanes sought to provide air cover for the rebels.

Gates told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that U.S. intelligence had shown that Qaddafi was taking the bodies of people he had killed and put them at sites that were attacked by the coalition forces.

“We have trouble coming up with proof of any civilian casualties that we have been responsible for,” the defense secretary said. Coalition forces have been “extremely careful in this military effort,” Gates said.

U.S. President Barack Obama will address the nation today about the American and allied military action in Libya.

Clashes in Syria

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Syrian President Bashar Al- Assad’s security forces engaged in deadly clashes with protesters in several cities as promises of new freedoms and pay increases failed to quiet dissent.

Reem Haddad, a spokeswoman for the Syrian Information Ministry, told Sky TV that a group of Syrian citizens with legitimate rights were joined in protest by another group that was armed and opened fire, causing casualties.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told CBS’s “Face the Nation” yesterday that the U.S. won’t enter into the conflict in Syria. Asked if the U.S. would intervene, Clinton said, “No.”

The elements that led to the intervention in Libya — which included international condemnation, an Arab League call for action, and a United Nations Security Council resolution –“are not going to happen in Syria,” Clinton said, in part because U.S. lawmakers from both parties believe that Assad is “a reformer.”

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh said no compromise had been reached on his future in talks with Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, Al Arabiya reported. Qirbi said earlier that he had hoped to reach an agreement on Saleh’s departure following months of anti-government demonstrations and the defection of ministers, army generals and diplomats from his regime.

The potential fall of Saleh is a “real concern” for the U.S., Gates told ABC, “because the most active, and at this point, perhaps the most aggressive brand of al-Qaeda — al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — operates out of Yemen.”