Tripoli/Washington: As coalition forces continued their offensive against Libyan forces for the seventh day pounding the strategic eastern town of Ajdabiya, NATO on Friday agreed to take control of the no-fly zone over Libya.

The 28-member North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) reached the agreement in Brussels to assume responsibility to implement the UN-mandated no-fly zone, NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.

He said while NATO's mandate did not go beyond the no-fly zone, the alliance forces could act in self-defence.

Rasmussen made it clear that operations against Muammar Gaddafi's forces would continue to be executed by the US, Britain and French forces.

Turkey, NATO's only Muslim nation, gave its nod after earlier refusing to back any plan unless it was given assurances that the operation would be limited to protecting civilians, enforcing an arms embargo and a no-fly zone, and providing humanitarian aid.

In Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that considerable progress has been made in enforcing the 'no-fly' zone over Libya but forces loyal to Gaddafi remain a threat to people of the country.

"Gaddafi's troops have been pushed back, but they remain a serious threat to the safety of the people," Clinton told reporters.

"A massacre in Benghazi was prevented. Gaddafi's air force and air defences have been rendered largely ineffective. And the coalition is in control of the skies above Libya," she said.

Fighting continues

Meanwhile, fighting continued for control of major cities between the rebels and the forces loyal to Gaddafi.

Reports from the crucial city of Ajdabiya, 150 km south of the eastern rebel strongholds of Benghazi and Tobruk, said the rebels were being held off at the gates of the town.

Fighting also raged in the rebel-held town of Misurata where a French warplane destroyed a Libyan military aircraft as it was landing at an air base.

An armed forces spokesman said a patrol of Rafale fighters spotted the Libyan plane that was breaching a no-fly order and shot it down, Al Arabiyah reported.

"The French patrol carried out an air-to-ground strike with an AASM weapon just after the plane had landed at the Misurata air base," the spokesman said.

British Defence Secretary Liam Fox said the British Tornado aircraft also targeted Libyan armoured vehicles "threatening the civilian population of Ajdabiya," BBC said.

A spokesman for the Libyan government, meanwhile, accused the Western governments of fighting on the side of the rebels and put the civilian death toll from the week-long coalition air strikes at almost 100.

In Tripoli, a series of explosions and anti-aircraft gunfire were heard as coalition forces intensified their operations.

In Benghazi, people cheered after Friday prayers when Imam Wanis al-Mabruk while addressing them praised the UN for agreeing to protect the Libya people against Gaddafi's forces.

As many as 10 countries are currently participating in the 'no-fly' zone. These are Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Spain, France, United Kingdom, Italy, Norway, Qatar and the US.

UAE Foreign Minister Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan said in a statement that his country is expanding its participation in Libya beyond humanitarian operations, committing six F16 and six Mirage aircraft to participate in the patrols that will enforce the no-fly zone.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, said that despite assurances by the Libyan government, a ceasefire did not appear to be in place on the ground, and that the Security Council may be prepared to take additional measures.

"To the contrary, fierce battles have continued in or around the cities of Ajdabiya, Misurata and Zintan, among others," he told the Council at the United Nations.

He said there were serious concerns about civilians, violations of international humanitarian law, and the access of civilian populations to basic commodities and services in areas currently under siege.

On February 26, the Security Council slapped sanctions on the Libyan regime including an arms embargo, an asset freeze and travel ban on Gaddafi and his loyalists, and a referral to the Hague-based International Criminal Court.

Last week, the Security Council called for an immediate ceasefire, establishing a no-fly zone and authorized "all necessary measures" for protecting civilians in Libya from Col Muammar Gaddafi's forces but Ban said there was little evidence that the Libyan regime was carrying out its obligations under the resolution.

Referring to the statement by President Obama that the role of the US military would be limited in time and scope, Clinton said the US mission has been to use America's unique capabilities to create conditions for the 'no-fly' zone, and to assist in meeting urgent humanitarian needs.

"As expected, we're already seeing a significant reduction in the number of US planes involved in operations as the number of planes from other countries increase in numbers," she said.

(Agencies)