March 24 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. and allied warplanes carried out further strikes against Muammar Qaddafi’s ground forces and hit an air base deep inside Libya as coalition nations neared agreement on having NATO assume operational control.
French aircraft bombed an air base 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Libya’s coast last night, a French military spokesman, Thierry Burkhard, said. The U.S. said there were 15 missile strikes on Libyan forces overnight. Qaddafi loyalists increased their attacks on cities, killing 16 people yesterday in Misrata in the west and six in the nearby coastal town of Zentan, opposition spokesman Abdulhafid Ghoga said at a news conference in Benghazi. The French Defense Ministry said one of its Rafale jets, after tracking a Libyan plane in the no-fly zone, destroyed it after it landed in Misrata.
“Our mission is to prevent attacks on civilians,” French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet told a news conference in Paris today. “That includes tanks and artillery. Legitimate targets also include the command centers that give the orders to hurt civilians.”
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said at a press conference in Paris that the military operation will last weeks, not months.
Oil prices have jumped about 25 percent since the Libyan rebellion began last month in the eastern city of Benghazi, heightening concerns about Middle East crude exports. The revolt has evolved from a popular uprising of the kind that ousted leaders in Egypt and Tunisia this year into a civil war with factions of the army on both sides.
Crude oil fluctuated near a 30-month high in New York. Crude for May delivery decreased 48 cents, or 0.5 percent, to $105.27 a barrel at 1:06 p.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices have risen 31 percent in the past year. Gold futures jumped to a record of $1,448.60 an ounce as the turmoil helped spur demand for the metal as an alternative investment.
Coalition leaders say they’ve already crippled Qaddafi’s air force and are now concentrating on his army. Government tanks pulled back from the seaside city of Misrata after a bombing raid, the AP reported, citing a local doctor.
“Misrata is still a very dangerous area for civilians,” Captain Clint Gebke, a U.S. military spokesman, said by phone from the USS Mount Whitney, a command ship in the Mediterranean.
Libya’s capital, Tripoli, and the city of Sebha were under air bombardment early today, state television reported. Khaled Kaim, the deputy foreign minister, renewed a cease-fire offer and called for the bombing to stop, Al Arabiya television said.
Juppe told RTL Radio that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will organize the military operation, while foreign ministers from the participating countries will meet in London next week to set the “political direction.”
Progress is being made on transferring operational control from the U.S. to NATO, U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague told Parliament in London.
“We are making progress in NATO taking on all measures under resolution 1973 needed to protect civilians from Qaddafi’s attacks,” Hague said, referring to the United Nations Security Council resolution that authorized the mission. “We need agreement to unified command and control for it to be robust, and we expect to get that soon.”
The U.S. will move to a “support and assist” role in the air campaign against Qaddafi’s forces as command of the operation is handed off, likely to NATO, White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
Longuet said NATO is a “formidable tool” to manage operations, though less suited to administer political aims, which will fall to the “contact group” of foreign ministers.
The French minister also said the coalition has intercepted conversations among Libyan officers indicating that many are ready to abandon the regime.
Hague reaffirmed that there will be no invasion of Libya by Western countries, though he said he “can’t exclude” the small-scale use of special forces on the ground. Qatar has joined other nations in enforcing the no-fly zone, he said.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Yemen’s parliament voted yesterday for emergency rule to curtail anti-government protests, as generals, ministers and lawmakers deserted the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and joined the demonstrators calling for change.
Syrians in the southern city of Daraa were ordered to stay indoors yesterday after reports that at least 15 people were killed by police, Amnesty International said.
Israeli warplanes struck targets in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and four rockets hit southern Israel as violence escalated, a day after a Jerusalem bombing killed a British woman and injured 30 other people.
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