NATO ships patrol off Libya's coast; Gadhafi forces roll back

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(AP) - NATO ships patrolled off Libya's coastWednesday as airstrikes, missiles and energized rebels forcedMoammar Gadhafi's tanks to roll back from two key western cities,including one that was the hometown of army officers who tried tooverthrow him in 1993. Libya's opposition took haphazard steps to form a government inthe east, as they and the U.S.-led force protecting them girded forprolonged and costly fighting. Despite disorganization among therebels - and utter confusion over who would ultimately run theinternational operation - the airstrikes and missiles seemed tohave their intended effect in Libya, at least for now. But the U.S. made clear that others would have to lead the way:Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. could relinquishcontrol as soon as Saturday. He had no answer when asked about apossible stalemate if Gadhafi hunkers down, and the coalition lacksU.N. authorization to target him. Rear Adm. Gerard Hueber, a top U.S. officer in the campaign inLibya, said international forces were attacking government troopsthat have been storming population centers. On Wednesday evening,Libyan state television reported a "Crusader colonialist bombingtargeting certain civil and military locations" in Tripoli'sTajoura district - scene of some of the heaviest past protestsagainst Gadhafi. From Ajdabiya in the east to Misrata in the west, thecoalition's targets included mechanized forces, mobilesurface-to-air missile sites and lines of communications thatsupply "their beans and their bullets," Hueber told Pentagonreporters by phone from the U.S. command ship in the Mediterraneansea. A doctor in Misrata said Gadhafi's tanks fled after theairstrikes, giving a much-needed reprieve to the besieged coastalcity, which is inaccessible to human rights monitors orjournalists. The airstrikes struck the aviation academy and avacant lot outside the central hospital, the doctor said. "Today, for the first time in a week, the bakeries opened theirdoors," the doctor said, speaking on condition of anonymity forfear of reprisals if Gadhafi's forces take Libya's third-largestcity, 125 miles southeast of Tripoli. He and rebel leaders said pro-Gadhafi snipers continued to fireon civilians from rooftops on Wednesday. Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, aspokesman for the opposition forces, said 16 people were killedtoday, including five children. Ghoga said people are being treated "in the hallways ofbuildings" because they did not dare go outside. In Zintan, a resident said Gadhafi's forces were shelling fromthe foot of a nearby mountain, but rebels forced their retreat fromall but one side of the city. After five days of fighting, Alial-Azhari said, rebel fighters captured or destroyed several tanks,and seized trucks loaded with 1,200 Grad missiles and fuel tanks.They captured five Gadhafi troops. Al-Azhari, who spoke to The Associated Press by phone from thecity, said one officer told rebels he was ordered "to turn Zintaninto a desert to be smashed and flattened." Resentment againstGadhafi runs high in Zintan, a city of 100,000 about 75 miles south of Tripoli, because it was the hometown of manyof the detained army officers who took part in a failed coup in1993. The withdrawal of the tanks from Misrata and Zintan was a raresuccess for the rebels, who are struggling daily against Gadhafiforces in the eastern gateway city of Ajdabiya. The disorganizedopposition holds much of the east but has been unable to takeadvantage of the international air campaign that saved it from thebrink of defeat.

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