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A Canadian CF-18A fighter prepares to land at the Birgi NATO Airbase in Trapani on the southern Italian island of Sicily March 21, 2011. Arab nations do not want the military intervention under way in Libya to be placed under NATO control, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Monday.

Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

Canadian fighter jets took part in coalition air assaults Wednesday that helped drive tanks loyal to dictator Moammar Gadhafi out of Libya's third-largest city.

Coalition aircraft conducted a series of raids on two major centres.

The Canadian air force says four of its CF-18 jet fighters, supported by two air-to-air refuelling aircraft, conducted two separate bombing missions, one overnight and the second later in the day.

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The first attack took place at Misrata, east of Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast, the scene of heavy fighting between rebels and Gadhafi forces.

Reports emerging last week from the city of 500,000 said innocent civilians were being shot in the streets as the dictator's soldiers tried to reassert control.

The Canadian raid reportedly destroyed an ammunition depot.

Four laser-guided, 226-kilogram bombs were dropped during the raid, said Major-General Tom Lawson, deputy chief of air staff.

"From all indications, it was a solid military target," Maj.-Gen. Lawson told a briefing in Ottawa.

There were no reports of civilian casualties, but Maj.-Gen. Lawson hastened to add that "couldn't be assured until there was a full battle damage assessment." The air force released aerial video footage of the target being destroyed.

"Every indication was that the attack was very successful and there was no collateral damage," he added.

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Maj.-Gen. Lawson had no information on where the second bombing took place, or the damage.

But a doctor in Misrata told the Associated Press that air strikes forced Col. Gadhafi's tanks to withdraw, giving the city a respite more than a week after the columns arrived for bloody street-to-street fighting.

The witness said one of the bombs hit a local aviation academy and the second plowed into a vacant lot outside the central hospital. It was unclear whether Canadian aircraft dropped them, but coalition air operations have been aimed a beating down Libyan military capabilities.

U.S. Rear Admiral Gerard Hueber, one of the senior coalition commanders, was quoted Wednesday saying the coalition was targeting Col. Gadhafi's tanks, artillery, mobile missile sites as well as ammunition depots and other military supplies in Misrata and Ajdabiya.

They're the first attacks by Canadian aircraft in the UN-sponsored campaign to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya. Until this point, the fighters had flown combat air patrols in defence of other allied aircraft and ships, or missions aimed at forcing the Libyan air force to keep its head down.

The Harper government dispatched six CF-18s to help enforce the no-fly zone, as well as the frigate HMCS Charlottetown to aid in the blockade of the Libyan coast and enforce the UN-mandated armed embargo.

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NATO officials said Wednesday they've received intelligence reports that indicate Col. Gadhafi is trying to smuggle mercenaries and weapons into the country.

Commodore John Newton, a senior officer with the Canadian navy, said the crew of the frigate is prepared to conduct boarding operations and has been training for search and rescue of downed pilots.

A U.S. F-15 crashed earlier this week after apparently suffering a mechanical failure. The pilots ejected high in the air and landed separately in rebel-controlled areas.

The Canadian frigate has a Sea King helicopter aboard, which Commodore Newton said could be employed in rescue operations at sea. There's a question about whether the nearly 50-year-old helicopter would be allowed to carry out land rescues of downed pilots.

Maj.-Gen. Lawson didn't rule it out.

"A risk assessment would be made as to whether it would be allowed to fly over land," he said.

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Libya has an extensive anti-aircraft defences, which coalition commanders have said have been almost destroyed. In the event a CF-18 goes down, Maj.-Gen. Lawson said, other nations have combat search and rescue capabilities and can assist.

Debate over whether NATO would take command of the operation adjourned in stalemate Wednesday. Ambassadors belonging to the 28-nation alliance have been meeting in Brussels trying to hammer out an agreement that would let control pass out of U.S. hands.

Talks resume Thursday.

But Turkey is reportedly concerned the air strikes have already exceeded the UN mandate.

Canada's defence minister, Peter MacKay, speaking in Halifax, acknowledged that negotiations have been tough, but he remained confident.

"They're part way there," he said.

"The United States is leading the coalition and there's hope that other countries will come around ... and that the coalition's leadership will morph into NATO leadership, which is an international body specifically tasked to carry out military missions such as this."

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