Airstrikes roll back Qaddafi's Misrata assault

AJDABIYA, Libya - International airstrikes silenced Muammar Qaddafi's guns and forced his tanks to roll back from the western city of Misrata on Wednesday, CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips reports, giving respite to civilians who have endured more than a week of attacks and a punishing blockade. In the east, civilians fleeing another strategic city described relentless shelling and dire conditions.

A doctor in Misrata said the tanks fled after the airstrikes began around midnight, giving a much-needed reprieve to the city, which is inaccessible to human rights monitors or journalists. He said the airstrikes struck the aviation academy and a vacant lot outside the central hospital, which was under maintenance.

"There were very loud explosions. It was hard to see the planes," the doctor said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals if Qaddafi's forces take the city. "Today, for the first time in a week, the bakeries opened their doors."

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He said the situation was still dangerous, with pro-Qaddafi snipers shooting at people from rooftops.

"Some of the tanks were hit and others fled," he said. "We fear the tanks that fled will return if the airstrikes stop."

According to the latest operations summary, the U.S. hit an ammunition dump outside the town, reports CBS News national security correspondent David Martin. U.S. Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, the on-scene commander, said Tuesday the coalition was "considering all options" in response to intelligence showing troops were targeting civilians in the city, 125 miles southeast of Tripoli.

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Amid the ongoing strikes, Western diplomats neared an agreement to let NATO assume responsibility for the no-fly zone and its warships began patrolling off Libya's Mediterranean coast.

Meanwhile, Qaddafi made his first public appearance in a week late Tuesday, hours after explosions sounded in Tripoli. 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.

The withdrawal of the tanks from Misrata was a rare success for the rebels. The disorganized opposition holds much of the east but has struggled to take advantage of the gains from the international air campaign, which appears to have hobbled Qaddafi's air defenses and artillery just as the rebels were facing defeat.

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The situation now appears to be back to where it was several weeks ago, with rebels controlling the country's east and Qaddafi maintaining his grip in the west. Once again, it is shaping up as a stalemate, notes Phillips. With neither side mustering the force for an outright victory, concerns have been raised of a prolonged conflict in the cities were they are locked in combat, such as Misrata and Zintan in the west and Ajdabiya, a city of 140,000 that is the gateway to the east.

In Zintan, a resident said Qaddafi's forces were at the base of a nearby mountain and were shelling in that area, but rebels forced their retreat from all but one side of the city. After five days of fighting, resident Ali al-Azhari said, rebel fighters captured or destroyed several tanks, and seized trucks loaded with 1,200 Grad missiles and fuel tanks. They captured five Qaddafi troops.

Al-Azhari, who spoke to The Associated Press by phone from the city, said one officer told rebels he had order "to turn Zintan to a desert to be smashed and flattened." Resentment against Qaddafi runs high in Zintan, a city of 100,000 about 75 miles south of Tripoli, because it was the hometown of many of the detained army officers who took part in a failed coup in 1993.

Pro-Qaddafi troops who have besieged Ajdabiya attacked a few hundred rebels on the outskirts Wednesday. The rebels fired back with Katyusha rockets but have found themselves outgunned. Plumes of smoke rose over the city, which is 95 miles south of the de-facto rebel capital of Benghazi.

"The weapons they have are heavy weapons and what we have are light weapons," said Fawzi Hamid, a 33-year-old who joined the Libyan military when he was younger but is now on the rebels' side. "The Qaddafi forces are more powerful than us so we are depending on airstrikes."

People fleeing the violence said the rebels had control of the city center while Qaddafi's forces were holding the outskirts.

"The pro-Qaddafi forces are just shooting everywhere. There is no electricity, the center of the city has been totally destroyed, even the hospital has been hit," 28-year-old Hafez Boughara said as he drove a white van filled with women and children on a desert road to avoid the main highway.

Mustafa Rani, 43, who was driving a hatchback with seven small children and his wife, described heavy shelling and shooting.

Rashid Khalikov, the U.N. aid coordinator for Libya, said Wednesday he was "extremely concerned" about the plight of civilians there, adding that the global body hasn't received any firsthand information about the humanitarian situation inside the country for a week.

Qaddafi was defiant in his first public appearance in a week late Tuesday, promising enthusiastic supporters at his residential compound in Tripoli, Libyan state TV broadcast what it said was live coverage of him standing on a balcony as he denounced the coalition bombings.

"O great Libyan people, you have to live now, this time of glory, this is a time of glory that we are living," he said.

Heavy anti-aircraft fire and loud explosions sounded in Tripoli after nightfall, possibly a new attack in the international air campaign. Two explosions were heard in the city before daybreak Wednesday.

Libyan state TV showed footage of a house that was demolished and burning. Weeping women slapped their faces and heads in grief while men carried a barefoot girl covered in blood on a stretcher to an ambulance. A man screamed "a whole family was killed." The TV labeled the footage as "the crusader imperialism bombs civilians."

Qaddafi's regime has alleged that dozens of civilians have been killed in the international bombardment, but Pentagon spokesman Marine Maj. Chris Perrine, a Pentagon spokesman and other coalition officials said no claims of civilian casualties have been independently verified.

One of Qaddafi's sons may have been killed, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told ABC News on Tuesday. She cited unconfirmed reports and did not say which son she meant. She said the "evidence is not sufficient" to confirm this.

Clinton also told ABC that people close to Qaddafi are making contacts abroad to explore options for the future, but she did not say that one of the options might be exile. She said they were asking, "What do we do? How do we get out of this? What happens next?"

The coalition includes the U.S., Canada, several European countries and Qatar. Qatar was expected to start flying air patrols over Libya by this weekend, becoming the first member of the Arab League to participate directly in the military mission.

In the last 24 hours, the U.S. flew 53 missions and dropped 10 bombs. All the other air forces flew 26 missions and dropped 8 bombs. So even though the plan is to hand this operation over to other countries, right now, the U.S. Military is still carrying a major part of these load, reports CBS News correspondent David Martin.

The Obama administration is eager to relinquish leadership of the hurriedly assembled coalition, but divisions have emerged over who would take over.

A compromise proposal would see NATO take a key role in the military operation guided by a political committee of foreign ministers from the West and the Arab world. Officials said the North Atlantic Council -- NATO's top decision-making body which already has approved military plans for enforcing the no-fly zone -- may decide to start them later Wednesday.

Spanish Defense Minister Carme Chacon endorsed the proposal for handing over control of the Libya operation to a political committee. "We are comfortable with that," she said.

But Pentagon officials have conceded there's no telling how long Qaddafi could cling to power, CBS News chief White House correspondent Chip Reid reports -- fueling criticism of Mr. Obama from members of both parties in Congress.

"The larger problem here is that having had this very good initial set of results, in stopping Qaddafi's forces outside of Benghazi and really giving more energy to the rebel alliance -- What's the long-term strategy to actually get Qaddafi out of power?" Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state for President George W. Bush, told "The Early Show." "There seems not to be much clarity on the mission going forward as to how that could be accomplished."

"There is a confusion about this mission," Burns said. "U.S. policy is that Qaddafi must go. U.N. policy is that the reach of the coalition doesn't extend that far."

White House officials say the president will have, "lots of opportunities" to explain why we are in Libya, and exactly what the mission is, Reid reports.

With congressional critics growing more vocal, the president defended the wisdom of the operation so far.

"It is in America's national interests to participate ... because no one has a bigger stake in making sure that there are basic rules of the road that are observed, that there is some semblance of order and justice, particularly in a volatile region that's going through great changes," Mr. Obama said.

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