BENGHAZI, Libya — France declared Libya’s airspace “under control” on Friday, after NATO agreed to take command of the no-fly zone in a compromise that appeared to set up dual command centers and possibly new confusion. Coalition warplanes struck Moammar Gadhafi’s forces outside the strategic eastern gateway city of Ajdabiya.
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Representatives for the regime and the rebels were expected to meet formally for the first time Friday, in Ethiopia, in what the U.N. described as a part of an effort to reach a cease-fire and political solution.
The overnight French and British strikes on an artillery battery and armored vehicles were intended to give a measure of relief to Ajdabiya, where residents have fled or cowered under more than a week of shelling and fighting between rebels and government troops. Explosions also could be heard in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, before daybreak Friday, apparently from airstrikes.
“Libyan airspace is under control, and we proved it yesterday, because a Libyan plane in the hands of pro-Gadhafi forces, which had just taken off from Misrata in order to bomb Misrata, was destroyed by a French Rafale,” Adm. Edouard Guillaud said on France-Info radio.
But the compromise that puts NATO in charge of clearing the skies still leaves the U.S. responsible for the more difficult task of planning attacks on Gadhafi’s ground forces and other targets.
Ajdabiya has been under siege for more than a week, with the rebels holding the city center and scattered checkpoints but facing relentless shelling from government troops on the outskirts. Residents are without electicity or drinking water, and many have fled.
The U.S. military said coalition jets flew about 150 on Thursday, about 70 of them with American planes.
“The operation is still focusing on tanks, combat vehicles, air defense targets – really whatever equipment and personnel are threatening the no-fly zone or civilians on the ground in such locations as Ajdabiya and along some other areas on the coast,” Marine Corps Capt. Clint Gebke told reporters from aboard the USS Mount Whitney.
The U.S. has been trying to give up the lead role in the operation against Gadhafi’s forces, and NATO agreed late Thursday to assume one element of it – control of the no-fly zone.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United Arab Emirates would deploy 12 planes for the coalition effort. Clinton thanked the U.A.E. for becoming the second Arab country after Qatar to send planes.
Qatar and U.A.E. are expected to start flying air patrols over Libya by this weekend.
Libyan state television showed blackened and mangled bodies that it said were victims of airstrikes in Tripoli. Rebels have accused Gadhafi’s forces of taking bodies from the morgue and pretending they were civilian casualties.
A U.S. intelligence report on Monday, the day after coalition missiles attacked Gadhafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound in the capital, said that a senior Gadhafi aide was told to take bodies from a morgue and place them at the scene of the bomb damage, to be displayed for visiting journalists. A senior U.S. defense official revealed the contents of the intelligence report on condition of anonymity because it was classified secret.
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