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Libya defiant as missile strikes force Gaddafi into retreat

NATO ships were patrolling off Libya's coast today as airstrikes, missiles and energised rebels forced Muammar Gaddafi's tanks to roll back from two key western cities.

Libya's opposition took haphazard steps to form a government in the east, as they and the US-led force protecting them girded for prolonged and costly fighting.

Despite disorganisation among the rebels -- and confusion over who would ultimately run the international operation -- coalition airstrikes and missiles seemed to thwart Gaddafi's efforts to rout his opponents, at least for now.

Anti-aircraft fire lit up the sky in Tripoli last night and explosions could be heard. Coalition aircraft hit a fuel depot in Tripoli, a senior government official told reporters. Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim at first denied reports that Gaddafi's compound in Tripoli was hit earlier, then backtracked and said he had no information about that. Other targets yesterday were near Benghazi and Misrata, he said.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged there was no clear end to the international military enforcement of the no-fly zone over Libya, but President Barack Obama said it "absolutely" would not lead to a US land invasion. Rear Admiral Gerard Hueber asserted that Gaddafi's air force had essentially been defeated. He said no Libyan aircraft had attempted to fly over the previous 24 hours.

"Those aircraft have either been destroyed or rendered inoperable," he said. A doctor in Misrata said Gaddafi's tanks fled after the airstrikes, giving a much-needed reprieve to the besieged coastal city.

"Today, for the first time in a week, the bakeries opened their doors," the doctor said.

Neither the rebels nor Gaddafi has mustered the force for an outright victory, raising concerns of a prolonged conflict.

NATO warships, meanwhile, started patrolling to enforce the UN arms embargo. Alliance spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the action was to "cut off the flow of arms and mercenaries," activity that intelligence reports say is continuing.



BOMBS

Six vessels were involved the first day, and Canada's Brig General Pierre St Amand said 16 ships had been offered by NATO members. Five are from Turkey, the organisation's sole Muslim member. Missiles fired from submarines in the Mediterranean, bombs dropped by B-2 stealth bombers and an array of airstrikes easily totalled hundreds of millions of dollars by the fifth day of the coalition campaign.

Some attacks by pro-Gaddafi forces continued in Misrata, where the doctor and rebel leaders said pro-Gaddafi snipers were firing on civilians from rooftops. Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, a spokesman for the opposition forces, said 16 people were killed, including five children.

Mr Ghoga said people were being treated "in the hallways of buildings" because they did not dare go outside.

In Zintan, a city of 100,000 about 120km south of Tripoli, a resident said Gaddafi's forces were shelling from the foot of a nearby mountain, but rebels forced their retreat from all but one side of the city.

hnews@herald.ie