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NATO ships begin Libya patrols

Ships-to-Libya

Sailors and Marines board the USS Bataan before the ship leaves the pier at Naval Station Norfolk, Wednesday in Norfolk, Va. The USS Bataan Amphibious Ready Group is deploying to the Mediterranean Sea to aid international efforts in Libya.

The Virginian-Pilot, Steve Earley Enlarge

BENGHAZI, Libya -- NATO ships began patrolling off Libya's coast Wednesday as airstrikes, missiles, and energized rebels forced Moammar Gadhafi's tanks to roll back from two key western cities, including one that was the hometown of army officers who tried to overthrow him in 1993.

Libya's opposition took steps to form a government in the east, as they and the U.S.-led force protecting them girded for prolonged and costly fighting.

Despite disorganization among the rebels -- and confusion over who would run the international operation -- coalition airstrikes and missiles seemed to thwart Gadhafi's efforts to rout his opponents, at least for now.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged there is no clear end to the international military enforcement of the no-fly zone over Libya, but President Obama said it "absolutely" will not lead to a U.S. land invasion.

U.S., European, and Arab and African officials have been invited to London next week for talks about Libya.

France and Britain, in announcing the London talks, appeared to be laying the groundwork for separating the international intervention into military and political sides.

The military side could be managed by NATO, while the political side would be managed by a different group that would include Arab countries and be seen less as Western intervention.

In Paris, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe announced that a "contact group," including the United States, France, Britain, and other countries involved in efforts to settle Libya's tensions, will meet Tuesday in London.

Italy, meanwhile, which has insisted that NATO have a clear leadership role in running the Libya operation, said it was time to "go back to the rules" with a unified chain of command under NATO.

From Ajdabiya in the east to Misrata in the west, the coalition's targets included Libyan troops' mechanized forces, mobile surface-to-air missile sites, and lines of communications that supply "their beans and their bullets," said Rear Adm. Gerard Hueber, a top U.S. officer in the campaign in Libya.

He said Gadhafi's air force has essentially been defeated. He said no Libyan aircraft had attempted to fly over the previous 24 hours.

"Those aircraft have either been destroyed or rendered inoperable," Admiral Hueber said by phone from the U.S. command ship in the Mediterranean Sea.

A doctor in Misrata said Gadhafi's tanks fled after the airstrikes, giving a much-needed reprieve to the besieged coastal city, which is inaccessible to human rights monitors or journalists.

The airstrikes struck the aviation academy and a vacant lot outside the central hospital, the doctor said.

Neither the rebels nor Gadhafi has mustered the force for an outright victory, raising concerns of a long conflict.

Mr. Gates said no one was ever under any illusion that the assault would last just two or three weeks.

He had no answer when asked about a possible stalemate if Gadhafi hunkers down, and the coalition lacks U.N. authorization to target him.

Mr. Obama, when asked about an exit strategy during an interview with the Spanish-language network Univision, didn't lay out a vision for ending the action.

"The exit strategy will be executed this week in the sense that we will be pulling back from our much more active efforts to shape the environment," he said.

NATO warships, meanwhile, started patrolling to enforce the U.N. arms embargo against Libya.

Alliance spokesman Oana Lungescu said the action was to "cut off the flow of arms and mercenaries," activity that intelligence reports say is continuing.

Last night, Libyan state television reported a "Crusader colonialist bombing targeting certain civil and military locations" in Tripoli's Tajoura district -- scene of some large protests against Gadhafi.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Gadhafi can end the crisis quickly -- by leaving power.

She said the U.S. wants the Libyan government to "make the right decision" by instituting a cease-fire, withdrawing forces from cities, and preparing for a transition that doesn't include the longtime dictator.

Gadhafi, meanwhile, was defiant late Tuesday in his first public appearance in a week.

State TV said he spoke from his Bab Al-Aziziya residential compound, the same one hit by a cruise missile Sunday night.

"In the short term, we'll beat them, in the long term, we'll beat them," he said.

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