Coalition jets patrolled the no-fly zone over Libya yesterday, but launched no new strikes after scattering and isolating Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi’s forces with a weekend of punishing air attacks, Pentagon officials said.
US military authorities were moving to hand control of the operation to its allies in the coalition, though no precise timetable for such a handoff had been specified.
A cruise missile attack blasted Qaddafi’s residential compound late on Sunday, hitting a military command and control center, two US officials said. It was the final strike launched over a weekend of ferocious air missions to destroy Libyan air defense and set up the no-fly zone approved by the UN to protect civilians, they said on condition of anonymity because they were not yet authorized to speak on the record about the latest developments.
A mix of coalition aircraft was enforcing the new zone and officials said they saw no indications that Qaddafi had tried to fly any of his planes. They were unaware of whether there had been strikes on any Qaddafi ground forces yesterday.
Qaddafi is not a target of the campaign, a senior military official said on Sunday, but he could not guarantee the Libyan leader’s safety.
Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, said they wanted the administration of US President Barack Obama to answer questions about what the US mission is in Libya, how it will be accomplished and how long the US will be involved.
Navy Vice Admiral William Gortney, staff director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon news conference there was no evidence civilians in Libya have been harmed in the air assault, codenamed Odyssey Dawn. Gortney also said no allied planes had been lost and all pilots had returned safely from missions that used stealth B-2 bombers, jet fighters, more than 120 Tomahawk cruise missiles and other high-tech weapons.
“We judge these strikes to have been very effective in significantly degrading the regime’s air defense capability,” Gortney said. “We believe his forces are under significant stress and suffering from both -isolation and a good deal of confusion.”
Gortney did not rule out the possibility of further attacks aimed at preventing Qaddafi from attacking civilians in Libya and enforcing the no-fly zone.
US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said the US expected to turn control of the mission over to a coalition — probably headed either by the French and British or by NATO — “in a matter of days.”
Late on Sunday, however, NATO’s top decision-making body failed to agree on a plan to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya, although it did approve a military plan to implement a UN arms embargo.
On Saturday night, three Air Force B-2s, launched from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, dropped precision munitions on an airfield near the city of Misurata, destroying hardened military aircraft shelters, while avoiding commercial structures nearby. A military official said the B-2s flew 25 hours in a round-trip from Whiteman and dropped 45 bombs.
A total of 15 Air Force and Marine Corps aircraft, along with jets from France and Great Britain, hit a heavy infantry unit advancing on Benghazi.
“To protect the Libyan people, we took them under attack,” -Gortney said.
Gortney said the coalition had control of the air space between Benghazi and Tripoli, Libya’s capital.
“The no-fly zone is effectively in place,” he said. “Anything that does fly that we detect, we will engage.”
Inside Qaddafi’s huge Tripoli compound, an administration building was hit and badly damaged late on Sunday. A photographer at the scene said half of the round, three-story building was knocked down, smoke was rising from it and pieces of a cruise missile were scattered around the scene.
Qaddafi and his residence are not on a list of targets to be hit by coalition aircraft, Gortney said.
However, Qaddafi won’t be safe “if he happens to be at a place, if he is inspecting a surface-to-air missile site and we don’t have any idea that he’s there or not,” Gortney said.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the goals of the operation were to protect civilians from further violence by pro-Qaddafi forces, while enabling the flow of humanitarian relief supplies. However, it was unclear how long the military effort would continue or on what scale.
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