West strikes Libya forces, NATO sees 90-day campaign

TRIPOLI, (Reuters) – Western warplanes bombed  Muammar Gaddafi’s armour in eastern Libya today to try to  break a battlefield stalemate and help rebels take the strategic  town of Ajdabiyah.
The African Union said it was planning to facilitate talks  to help end war in the oil producing country. But NATO said its  no-fly zone operation could last three months, and France  cautioned the conflict would not end soon.
In Washington, a U.S. military spokeswoman said the  coalition fired 16 Tomahawk cruise missiles and flew 153 air  sorties in the past 24 hours targeting Gaddafi’s artillery,  mechanized forces and command and control infrastructure.
Western governments hope that such raids, launched on  Saturday with the aim of protecting civilians, will shift the  balance of power in favour of the Arab world’s most violent  popular revolt.
In Tripoli, residents reported another air raid just before  dawn, hearing the roar of a warplane, followed by a distant  explosion and bursts of anti-aircraft gunfire.
Rebel forces massing for an attack on the strategically  important town of Ajdabiyah fired steady bursts of artillery at  army positions after Gaddafi’s forces refused a ceasefire offer.
Opposition forces on the road to Ajdabiyah seemed more  organised than in recent days, when their disarray stirred  doubts about their ability to challenge Gaddafi.
They had set up road blocks at regular intervals and   Reuters counted at least four truck-based rocket launchers —  heavier weaponry than had been seen earlier this week.
Winning back Ajdabiyah would be the biggest victory for  the eastern rebels since their initial push westwards went into  reverse two weeks ago and the better equipped Gaddafi forces  drove them back towards the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
It would also suggest that allied airstrikes are could be  capable of helping rebel fighters topple Gaddafi.

At the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, AU  commission chairman Jean Ping said it was planning to facilitate  talks to help end the conflict in a process that should end with  democratic elections.
It was the first statement by the AU, which had rejected any  form of foreign intervention in the Libya crisis, since the U.N.  Security Council imposed a no-fly zone last week and air strikes  began on Libyan military targets.
But in Brussels, a NATO official said planning for NATO’s  no-fly operation assumed a mission lasting 90 days, although  this could be extended or shortened as required.
France said the war could drag on for weeks.
“I doubt that it will be days,” Admiral Edouard Guillaud,  the head of French armed forces, told France Info radio. “I  think it will be weeks. I hope it will not take months.”
Guillaud said a French plane destroyed an army artillery  battery near the eastern frontline town of Ajdabiyah, 150 km (90  miles) south of Benghazi. Ajdabiyah is strategically important  for both sides as it commands the coastal highway to the west.
In London, the Ministry of Defence said British Tornado  aircraft had also been active there, firing missiles overnight  at Libyan military vehicles threatening civilians.
Later in the afternoon, Western warplanes were again active  over Ajdabiyah and a Reuters correspondent close to the town  heard three large explosions and large plumes of black smoke  rising above the eastern entrance to the town.
In the eastern rebel bastion of Benghazi, rebel spokesman  Mustafa Gheriani said he expected Ajdabiyah to fall on Friday or  Saturday following the overnight British and French strikes.
“This (the strikes) will weaken their forces and more  importantly their morale,” he said, adding the level of Western  strikes was “sufficient. We feel safe under their protection”.
Simon Brooks, head of the International Committee of the Red  Cross operations in eastern Libya, reported big population  movements from the Ajdabiyah area because of the fighting.
The ICRC was sending 700 tents to the area of Ajdabiyah to  help these displaced people, he said. In Ajdabiyah, the hospital  “is obviously very close to where the fighting is going on. It  is extremely difficult for people to get access to the  hospital.”

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