Washington: A US-led coalition has succeeded in scattering and isolating Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi's forces after a weekend of punishing air attacks, Pentagon officials say, and American military authorities are moving to hand control of the operation to other countries.

Gaddafi is not a target of the campaign, a senior military official said on Sunday, but he could not guarantee the Libyan leader's safety.

Navy Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, staff director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon news conference there is no evidence civilians in Libya have been harmed in the air assault, code named Odyssey Dawn.

Gortney also said no allied planes have been lost and all pilots have returned safely from missions that used stealth B-2 bombers, jet fighters, more than 120 Tomahawk cruise missiles and other high-tech weapons.

"We judge these strikes to have been very effective in significantly degrading the regime's air defense capability," Gortney said. "We believe his forces are under significant stress and suffering from both isolation and a good deal of confusion."

But Gortney did not rule out the possibility of further attacks aimed at preventing Gaddafi from attacking civilians in Libya and enforcing a no-fly zone.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the US expects to turn control of the mission over to a coalition probably headed either by the French and British or by NATO "in a matter of days."

Late Sunday, however, NATO's top decision-making body failed to agree on a plan to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya, although it did approve a military plan to implement a UN arms embargo.

Command centre bombarded

The US-led coalition forces bombarded a command centre of Muammar Gaddafi close to his private residence in Tripoli.
 
A coalition official said Gaddafi's "command and control capability" inside the Libyan leader's compound at Bab el-Aziziya in south of capital Tripoli had been demolished.

It was unclear where Gaddafi (68) was at the time of the strike on his air defences as part of a renewed allied assault on Libya involving British submarines and RAF Tornado jets.

The three-storey administrative building which was flattened is about 50 metres from Gaddafi's iconic tent where the Libyan strongman generally meets guests in Tripoli. It was hit by a missile, Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim told reporters who were taken to the site by bus.

A ceasefire announced by Gaddafi failed to impress the US and European nations which have asserted that the Libyan leader must step down from power.

In Misrata, west of Benghazi, Gaddafi's tanks moved in targeting rebel positions after a military base was hit by coalition forces. Rebels are leading a month-long uprising seeking an end to the 41-year regime of Gaddafi.

A Libyan official claimed that 64 people have been killed in the strikes by the coalition forces but there was no independent confirmation on this.

However, Gates said it would be "unwise" to have coalition forces try to kill Gaddafi in military strikes in Libya and that the allied operation should stick to the parameters as authorized by UN Security Council.

"I think that it's important that we operate within the mandate of the UN Security Council resolution," he said.  Asked about criticism about the air strikes from Mussa, Gates said he was reassured by renewed support for the operation by the Arab bloc.

Initially, the goal was to shut down Gaddafi's air force to safeguard civilians, he said.

"The key is to first of all, establish the no-fly zone, to prevent him from using his military forces to slaughter his own people," he said.

In his first public remarks since the start of the bombings, Gates said President Barack Obama felt very strongly about limiting America's role in the operation, adding that the President is "more aware than almost anybody of the stress on the military."

Defiant Gaddafi slams West

Despite the reverses, a defiant Gaddafi has slammed the West for the "aggression", saying "We will not leave our land and liberate it."

Warning that it will be a "long war", he said on Sunday, "We will fight for every square in our land".

The Libyan leader has also threatened to throw open defence supplies to arm civilians to defend the country.

Airstrikes condemned

South African President Jacob Zuma on Monday said that the country does not support "the regime change doctrine" in Libya, and called for restraint from foreign countries enforcing a no-fly zone.

"As South Africa we say no to the killing of civilians, no to the regime change doctrine and no to the foreign occupation of Libya," said Zuma, one of five heads of state on a high-level African Union panel on Libya.

"We believe that a peaceful and political solution, based on the will of the Libyan people, will guarantee long-term stability in Libya," he added.

Arab League, British PM ‘on same page'

Echoing similar sentiments, British Prime Minister David Cameron believes he and Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa are "on the same page" over military action in Libya.


Cameron and Mussa apparently criticized the air strikes on Libya over the weekend and agreed that the protection of civilians was paramount.

The Arab League, which supported the UNSC move for the 'no fly' zone, criticised the heavy bombardments by the western forces, saying several civilians had been killed or wounded.

"What has happened in Libya differs from the goal of imposing a no-fly zone," the Arab League's Secretary General Amr Mussa said.

"What we want is the protection of civilians and not bombing other civilians," Mussa said.

"This was a barbaric bombing which could have hit hundreds of civilians gathered at the residence of Muammar Gaddafi about 400 metres away from the building which was hit," Ibrahim said.

(JPN/Agencies)