Tripoli: Rebel gunners fought artillery duels with Muammar Gadhafi’s forces in eastern Libya on Friday and Western warplanes struck at heavy armour used by the government to crush the revolt.
The African Union (AU) said it was planning to facilitate talks to help end war in the oil producing country. But Nato said its no fly zone operation could last three months, and France cautioned the conflict would not end soon.
In Washington, a US military spokeswoman said the coalition fired 16 Tomahawk cruise missiles and flew 153 air sorties in the past 24 hours targeting Gadhafi’s artillery, mechanized forces and command and control infrastructure.
Western governments hope such raids, launched a week ago to protect civilians, will also shift the balance of power on the battlefield in favour of the Arab world’s most violently resisted popular revolt.
In Tripoli, residents reported another air raid just before dawn, hearing the roar of a warplane, followed by a distant explosion and bursts of anti-aircraft gunfire.
Rebel forces massing for an attack on the strategically important town of Ajdabiyah fired steady bursts of artillery at army positions after Gadhafi’s forces refused a ceasefire offer. Opposition forces on the road to Ajdabiyah seemed more organized than in recent days.
At the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, AU commission chairman Jean Ping said it was planning to facilitate talks to help end the conflict in a process that should end with democratic elections.
It was the first statement by the AU, which had rejected any form of foreign intervention in the Libya crisis, since the UN Security Council imposed a no-fly zone last week and began air strikes on Libyan military targets.
But in Brussels, a Nato official said planning for Nato’s no-fly operation assumed a mission lasting 90 days, although this could be extended or shortened as required.
France said the war could drag on for weeks.
“I doubt that it will be days,” Admiral Edouard Guillaud, the head of French armed forces, told France Info radio. “I think it will be weeks. I hope it will not take months.”
Differences over the scope the UN resolution gave for military action against Gadhafi’s army led to days of heated arguments within Nato about its role in the operation.
The US, embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan, is keen to step back and play a supporting role in Libya in order to preserve alliance unity and maintain the support of Muslim countries for the UN-mandated intervention.
At the UN, envoys said Sudan had quietly granted permission to use its airspace to nations enforcing the no-fly zone. Sudan’s UN envoy, Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman, neither confirmed nor denied that report.
South of the Sahara, media quoted a cabinet minister as saying Uganda would freeze Libyan assets worth $375 million in line with a UN resolution imposing curbs on Libya.
The United Arab Emirates said it would send 12 planes to take part in operations to enforce the no-fly zone.
Qatar has already contributed two fighters and two military transport planes.
In Tripoli, officials and hospital workers said civilians, including women, were among those killed in the latest Western air strikes in the Libyan capital. There was no way to independently verify the report.
Mohammed Abbas and Angus MacSwan in Benghazi, Hamid Ould Ahmed and Christian Lowe in Algiers, Tom Perry in Cairo, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Phil Stewart in Moscow, Andrew Quinn in Washington, Catherine Bremer, Emmanuel Jarry and Yves Clarisse in Paris, Rosalba O’Brien in London contributed to this story.