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Battered by Western air power, Libya mounts propaganda war Add to ...

Command of Western military operations in Libya will be transferred from the United States to NATO within a day or two, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Thursday.

“Compromise has been reached in principle in a very short time,” Mr. Davutoglu told reporters. “The operation will be handed over to NATO completely.”

He said this would happen as soon as possible, within one or two days. Agreement had been reached in a teleconference with his counterparts from the United States, France and Britain.

Its defences battered by coalition air power, Libya is fighting back with a blaring propaganda campaign designed to present it as an innocent victim of “colonial crusader” aggression.

Moammar Gadhafi’s government says dozens of civilians have been killed in five straight nights of Western air strikes, but has not shown reporters any firm evidence of civilian deaths. Western military officials deny any civilians have been killed.

Coalition bombers planes and ships struck at Mr. Gadhafi positions, including artillery, tanks, an ammunition bunker and a small number of helicopters as they sat on an airfield along the coast, a U.S. defence official said Thursday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. NATO ships also patrolled the coast to block arms and mercenaries from flowing in to help Mr. Gadhafi.

More than a dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from U.S. and British ships in the Mediterranean Sea late Wednesday and early Thursday, their targets including Mr. Gadhafi's air defence missile sites in Tripoli and south of the capital. Other attacks were launched against an ammunition bunker near Misrata and forces south of Benghazi, the official said.

France's joint chiefs of staff, in a statement on their website, said French surveillance aircraft noticed a Libyan combat plane that was flying near Misrata in violation of the UN Security Council resolution. A French Rafale fighter jet fired a guided air-to-ground missile on the Libyan jet after it landed at the Misrata air base.

In Tripoli, Libyan deputy foreign minister Khaled Kaim said that the “military compound at Juffra” was among the targets hit before dawn. Juffra is one of at least two air bases deep in Libya's interior, on main routes that lead from neighbouring countries in the Sahara region that have been suppliers of arms and fighters for Mr. Gadhafi.

From fiery statements on state TV to carefully orchestrated press events in Tripoli, Mr. Gadhafi’s government is also working overtime to convince the world its forces are not involved in military action against civilians in rebel-held cities.

People in besieged rebel cities such as Misrata, reached by Reuters by telephone, have painted a different picture, saying days of air strikes have failed to stop bombardments and shootings of civilians by Gadhafi forces.

Mr. Gadhafi says anti-government rebels are al Qaeda militants. But as coalition strikes began over the weekend, the Libyan leader has himself resorted to language increasingly reminiscent of the Islamist group’s anti-Western rhetoric.

“This is a crusader war against the Muslim people, especially against the Libyan people. They believe they will terrify the Libyan people,” he said in a speech on Sunday.

“All Libyan cities will revolt and we will eliminate all traitors who cooperate with America and the crusader alliance.”

In some quarters Libya’s campaign has worked.

Russia, a United Nations Security Council member, has described coalition attacks as “indiscriminate,” prompting U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to accuse Moscow of swallowing Mr. Gadhafi’s “lies” about civilian deaths.

Coalition forces, acting in accordance with a UN Security Council resolution authorizing a no fly zone and measures to protect civilians, have pounded Libyan targets since Sunday.

Libyan officials say both military and civilian sites have been hit by air strikes, but have not taken reporters to the sites of bombings on civilian areas despite repeated requests.

The Libyan authorities have staged a number of media events to demonstrate that civilians have been killed, but none of them has produced firm evidence. On Wednesday, officials promised a visit to one civilian site they said was damaged by a coalition attack, but that trip did not materialize.

On Thursday, Reuters journalists given access to a morgue saw the corpses of 18 adult males, the first time foreign reporters in Tripoli were shown bodies of what the government described as victims of allied strikes.

A Libyan official there said some of the dead were soldiers killed in a Wednesday air strike and some were civilians. The journalists were not shown bodies of women or children.

Separately on Wednesday, officials drove reporters to a remote desert town southeast of Tripoli to show the family of a soldier who had been killed fighting rebels in eastern Libya.

One local tribal member, Mansour Khalaf, asked by visiting reporters why they had been taken there, said: “I don’t know. It’s not my problem.”

On March 20, government officials took foreign reporters to a cemetery in Tripoli to attend a funeral service for people who officials said were killed by Western bombs.

People attending the service gave conflicting accounts of how their relatives had died, making it difficult to assess the veracity of the official version.

Asked earlier why reporters could not visit families of those killed in air strikes, government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said it was unsafe to speak to them in current circumstances.

“People (journalists) should not approach those who have lost their family members,” he said on March 20. “We need to keep you away from them, guys. They may do something silly.”

The International Criminal Court's prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told said Thursday he is “100 per cent” certain that his investigation into attacks on Libyan protesters will lead to crimes against humanity charges against Mr. Gadhafi’s regime.

The court's investigation makes it likely that Mr. Gadhafi's regime will face additional censure, even if it retains power.

Mr. Moreno-Ocampo said his team is looking into six incidents of “massive shooting of civilians” by security forces in Tripoli, Benghazi and other Libyan cities.

His team is working with a number of national police forces and Interpol to collect videos, photos and other evidence to determine who participated in and ordered the attacks, he said.

A later investigation will examine the regime's actions during the armed conflict with rebels.

With files from The Associated Press

 

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