By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Air strikes from a UN-backed international military coalition are continuing for a third night in Libya, with reports from state media saying that planes are targeting the capital, Tripoli.
Planes from the United States and several European countries are launching attacks against government forces that are defending Muammar Qaddafi’s hold on power and waging a brutal war against opposition forces.
State TV reported that anti-aircraft fire erupted in Tripoli several hours after nightfall tonight, but the target of the strikes were not known. A TV broadcaster said, “These attacks are not going to scare the Libyan people.”
Qaddafi’s residential compound in Tripoli was destroyed during the coalition’s second night of airstrikes, as well as a line of tanks headed toward Benghazi, the stronghold of a month-long revolt against the Libyan leader’s four-decade rule.
The intervention — the biggest against an Arab country since the 2003 invasion of Iraq — began early March 20 after the United Nations’ Security Council adopted a resolution authorizing international military action in Libya to set up a no-fly zone and prevent attacks on civilians.
The strikes have drawn criticism from Arab League chief Amr Moussa, who deplored the loss of civilian lives. He toned down his criticism today, however. saying he respected the UN resolution.
Putin, Medvedev Clash
Within the EU, Germany has continued to argue its opposition to the action and refused to participate in the military coalition. It has, however, agreed to provide humanitarian assistance.
The UN action has also triggered a public clash between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Earlier today, Putin compared the UN action to a “medieval calls for crusades, and called the actual resolution — which security council member Russia abstained from voting on — “defective and flawed.”
Putin said the use of force by the United States in international affairs was becoming what he called a “steady trend.”
“During Bill Clinton’s presidency they bombed Yugoslavia and Belgrade. Bush sent troops to Afghanistan. After that they brought troops to Iraq, under an absolutely false pretext, and eliminated the entire Iraqi leadership,” Putin said.
“Even children from Saddam Hussein’s family died. Now it’s Libya’s turn, under the guise of protecting the civilian population,” he added.
Within hours, Medvedev slammed Putin’s comments as “unacceptable.”
“Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions that essentially lead to a clash of civilizations, such as ‘crusades’ and so on. It is unacceptable. Otherwise, everything may end up much worse than what is going on now. Everyone should remember that,” Medvedev said.
Russian news agencies also quoted Medvedev as giving his qualified backing to the resolution on Libya, saying, “I do not believe this resolution to be wrong. I believe that this resolution also reflects on the whole our understanding of the events happening in Libya.”
President Barack Obama, speaking at a news conference in Chile, said the United States favors Qaddafi’s ouster but that the international military effort has a more limited goal of establishing a no-fly zone over Libya and protecting civilians against massacre by forces loyal to the longtime ruler.
Obama said the United States would transfer leadership of the military operation to other, unnamed participants within a “matter of days, not weeks.”
“It is U.S. policy that Qaddafi needs to go. And we’ve got a wide range of tools in addition to our military efforts to support that policy,” Obama said.
U.S.: Military Goals Being Achieved
U.S. Army General Carter Ham, the top officer at U.S. Africa Command, briefed reporters today on the progress of the coalition military action. He said events over the last 36 hours “are generally achieving the intended objectives.
“Air attacks have succeeded in stopping regime ground forces from advancing to Benghazi and we are now seeing ground forces moving southward from Benghazi,” he said,
“We will, of course, watch these ground force movements closely. And through a variety of reports we know that regime ground forces that were in the vicinity of Benghazi now possess little will or capability to resume offensive operations,” the general added.
The U.S. military, eager to avoid any parallels with the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, has been treading carefully. Officials have stressed that strikes are not aimed at taking out Qaddafi and say the United States will turn over control of the operation to a coalition headed by France, Britain or NATO.
In response to repeated questions about the scope of the mission, Hamm said the goal was to protect civilians only, “not to support the opposition.”
He added, “I have no mission to attack that ]Qaddafi] and we are not doing so, we’re not seeking his whereabouts or anything like that.”
The strikes have been welcomed by rebel fighters controlling the country’s east, which suffered damaging offensives by Qaddafi’s forces over the last 10 days.
Gortney, however, said Benghazi and other rebel-held cities were still under threat. The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, warned the outcome of the campaign was “very uncertain.”
Qaddafi supporters remained defiant despite the strikes. In Tripoli, a crowd gathered on a central square Sunday, shooting automatic weapons in the air and pledging to slaughter rebels.
Qaddafi, too, vowed to fight on. He said the government was arming its supporters and warned of a “long war.”
Also Monday, Turkey agreed to a U.S. request to represent Washington’s interests in Libya.
The Turkish Embassy in Washington said Ankara will act as an intermediary while the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli is closed.
A State Department official confirmed the report to the Associated Press but spoke on condition of anonymity because the agreement had not yet been signed officially.