Western warplanes silenced Muammar Gaddafi's artillery and tanks besieging the rebel-held town of Misrata on Wednesday after an American admiral warned that the Libyan leader's armour was now in the cross-hairs.
Breathing defiance, Gaddafi earlier said Western powers who carried out a fourth night of air strikes on Libya to protect civilians under a UN mandate were "a bunch of fascists who will end up in the dustbin of history."
The Western powers enforcing the U.N. resolution with their military might are struggling to agree on a coherent command structure including NATO after Washington said it wanted to hand over leadership of the campaign in the coming days.
Gaddafi's tanks had kept up the shelling of Misrata, killing dozens of people this week, and residents said a "massacre" was taking place with doctors treating the wounded in hospital corridors. Snipers killed five people on Wednesday, they said.
"Now with the air strikes we are more optimistic," Saadoun, a Misrata resident, told Reuters by telephone. "These strikes give us hope, especially the fact they are precise and are targeting the (Gaddafi) forces and not only the bases."
"Before the strikes, tanks shelled the city ... but now they haven't fired a single artillery (round) since the air strike."
Such precision bombing missions can be directed at long distance with electronic systems and sometimes use rebel agents in the target zone or special forces long-range reconnaissance patrols who guide the warplanes in.
At least two explosions were heard in the Libyan capital Tripoli before dawn on Wednesday on a fourth night of strikes and Gaddafi looked set to dig in for the long haul.
"We will not surrender," Gaddafi told supporters forming a human shield to protect him at his Tripoli compound, which came under attack in 1986 from the U.S. Reagan administration and once again in the current round of air raids.
Prior to the Misrata strikes, U.S. Rear Admiral Peg Klein said warplanes, which had been suppressing Libya's air defences, would now be sent out to attack Gaddafi's tanks.
GADDAFI'S TANKS ARE TARGETS
"Some of those cities still have tanks advancing on them to attack the Libyan people," said Klein, commander of the expeditionary strike group aboard the USS Kearsarge off Libya.
"We are authorised, and the president made the nexus between the Security Council resolution and what he considers our legal mandate to attack those tanks. So that is the type of target that our strike aircraft will go at."
The siege of Misrata, now weeks old, had become increasingly desperate, with water cut off for days and food running out, doctors operating on patients in hospital corridors and many of the wounded left untreated or simply turned away.
"The snipers are ... shooting at the hospital and its two entrances are under heavy attack. No one can get in or out," said Saadoun. "We have lost all communication with people inside. The last thing we knew is that three are killed and three are critically wounded."
It was impossible to independently verify the report.
The Libyan government denies its army is conducting any offensive operations and says troops are only defending themselves when they come under attack.
Gaddafi forces resumed on Wednesday their bombardment of Zintan, another rebel-held town in west Libya, a resident said, and tanks were expected there.
"Gaddafi's brigades started bombardment from the northern area half an hour ago. The bombardment is taking place now. The town is completely surrounded. The situation is very bad," the resident, Abdulrahman, told Reuters by telephone from the town.
"They are getting reinforcements. Troops backed with tanks and vehicles are coming. We appeal to the allied forces to come and protect civilians," he said.
REBELS FIGHT TO BREAK IMPASSE
While Western air power has grounded Gaddafi's warplanes and pushed back his forces from the brink of rebel stronghold Benghazi, his army has been besieging Libyan holdouts by rebels fighting to overthrow his 41-year rule.
In the east of this oil-producing north African desert state, disorganised and badly equipped rebels have failed to capitalise on air strikes and have been pinned down outside Ajdabiyah, 150 km (90 miles) west of Benghazi.
Rebels were clashing with the army inside Ajdabiyah, rebel fighters said on Wednesday, and residents were fleeing.
Fighters said some groups had made covert forays into the town through the desert but that tanks at the town entrance had kept their main force at bay.
Retaking Ajdabiyah would be a morale boost for the rebels and would show that air strikes by Western warplanes had allowed them to strike back at Gaddafi's better-armed forces.
"We went into Ajdabiyah yesterday (Tuesday) at 2 p.m. It's not Ajdabiyah any more," said rebel fighter Faraj Ali, in his machinegun-mounted truck. "It's dead, destroyed, a ghost town."
A family leaving Ajdabiyah said a fraction of the residents remained. "I saw bodies in the streets, and buried and washed some myself as they're rotting in the morgue. There's not been electricity for a week," said one man, declining to be named.
"We have revolutionaries in the town and they hide during the day and fire on Gaddafi's people at night," said rebel fighter Ramadan Ghurfaly.
Missiles landed near rebel positions on Wednesday and shelling in previous days killed a number of rebel fighters.
Fighter Ali despaired of what he saw as inertia by the leadership in Benghazi and called for more help from the West.
"The National Libyan Council aren't the people to ask for anything to be frank. We want help from the West. If it weren't for them, Gaddafi's forces would be in Benghazi," Ali said.
As the rebels sought to organise their command structure on the battlefield, the rebel political leadership named Mahmoud Jabril to head an interim government and pick ministers.
Jabril, a reformer who was once involved in a project to establish a democratic state in Libya, is already the head of a crisis committee to cover military and foreign affairs.
NATO TO COORDINATE
The United States, with its forces already tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan, has said it wants to take a back seat.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said NATO would take on a coordination role in the Libya intervention and a contact group would be formed -- made up of representatives of coalition countries, African Union, Arab League and EU countries -- which will be in charge of strategic planning.
"It is not (NATO) that will be in charge of strategy, Juppe told reporters. "We are soon going to announce the creation of a contact group which will plan the operation."
The United States, Britain and France agreed on Tuesday that the alliance should play a key operational role, but the assent of all 28 NATO states is needed and they have been split over whether it should also exercise political control.
Turkey, a Muslim state, said the campaign has already gone beyond the scope of last week's resolution.
But Brigadier Pierre Saint Anand of NATO's staff said Turkey had agreed to send five warships and a submarine to join another NATO operation off Libya to enforce a UN arms embargo.
France argues having the U.S.-led NATO in charge would erode support due to the alliance's unpopularity in the Arab world.
Qatar has sent four warplanes, the United Arab Emirates has offered support, and British Prime Minister David Cameron said that Kuwait and Jordan had agreed to make logistical contributions to protect civilians in Libya.
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