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An F18 Hornet of the Canadian air force arrives at the Trapani Birgi air base in the southern island of Sicily on March 18, 2011.MARCELLO PATERNOSTRO

Canadian war planes will be executing "high-level strategic strikes" over Libya within the next 48 hours, according to Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

Speaking to CTV's Question Period on Sunday, Mr. MacKay said the six Canadian CF-18 fighter jets sent to the region will be based out of Italy, along with about 140 to 150 Canadian Forces support personnel. They will be authorized to enforce the no-fly zone created by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 and to engage Libyan forces in air-to-ground combat in order to protect civilians, Mr. MacKay said.

"The purpose here is clearly to disable the airfields and the use of Libyan air assets that could be brought to bear and used against civilians. So the clear indication is that we want to disable their air force and ensure that civilians are given the maximum protection," he said.

"Gadhafi has clearly demonstrated wanton disregard for the well-being of his own citizens. There have been terrible casualties already."

The Defence Minister also said that while he couldn't speculate on how long Canada's military commitment might last, he hopes the conflict is brief.

"We certainly hope that this will not turn into another protracted drawn-out affair. It's very difficult to gauge the capability of the rebels on the ground and whether they are, in fact, united throughout the country," he said.

He would not comment on whether soldiers from Canada's special forces were at work in the region.

HMCS Charlottetown is currently in the Mediterranean, near Gibraltar, to assist with the evacuation of civilians. Mr. MacKay left open the possibility that the Charlottetown could join a naval blockade of Libya.