WASHINGTON – The U.N-approved no-fly zone over Libya is working and will soon be expanded to Tripoli as aircraft from additional coalition countries arrive in the region, the head of U.S. Africa Command said on Monday.
U.S. Army General Carter Ham said during a Pentagon briefing that coalition air forces were continuing missions to sustain the no-fly zone and that Libyan ground forces were moving south from rebel-held Benghazi showing "little will or capability" to operate.
"With the growing capabilities of the coalition, I anticipate the no-fly zone will soon extend to Brega, Misurata, and then to Tripoli," Ham told reporters in a video conference from his headquarters in Germany.
Ham said that would cover "about 1,000 kilometers, so it's a pretty wide area."
Ham said U.S. and U.K. forces launched another 12 Tomahawk cruise missiles over the past 24 hours at sites controlled by Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi. The targets included regime command and control facilities, a surface-to-surface missile site and an air defense station, according to Ham, the operation commander who added that there was no direct coordination among allies and anti-Qaddafi rebels.
"Air attacks have succeeded in stopping regime ground forces from advancing to Benghazi, and we are now seeing ground forces moving southward from Benghazi," Ham said. "Through a variety of reports, we know that regime ground forces that were in the vicinity of Benghazi now possess little will or capability to resume offensive operations."
Ham said he has little indication of Qaddafi's whereabouts, adding that locating or attacking him is not a mission of the coalition military forces. He said, however, that the possibility of Qadafi using surrogates to launch a terrorist attack on the U.S. or Europe is "a very, very legitimate concern."
He said the U.S. already is taking a smaller role in the mission. Whereas about 50 percent of the approximately 60 air missions flown on Sunday were by U.S. pilots, the "overwhelming" share were by non-U.S. pilots on Monday, Ham said.
During a news conference with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, President Obama said the United States expects to transfer the lead military role in Libya to other allies in a matter of days.
"We anticipate this transition to take place in a matter of days and not in a matter of weeks," he said.
Obama said the military objective in Libya is to guard civilians from attacks by Qaddafi, not oust him from power. He added, however, that U.S. policy is that Qaddafi "needs to go."
Earlier Monday, United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron said coalition forces had neutralized Libyan air defenses, averting a massacre in the African nation.
Cameron said Qaddafi was in breach of a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an immediate end to hostilities and that the Libyan leader had lied to the international community by flouting an immediate cease-fire.
Cameron told U.K. lawmakers Monday that through airstrikes, coalition forces helped avert what could have been "a bloody massacre in Benghazi."
A top French official said the international military intervention in Libya is likely to last "a while," echoing Qaddafi's warning of a long war ahead as rebels -- energized by the strikes on their opponents -- said they were fighting to reclaim a city under siege from the Libyan leader's forces.
Destroyed tanks and personnel carriers littered the main desert road leading southwest from Benghazi, the rebel's capital in the east of the country -- the remains of a pro-Qaddafi force that had been besieging the city until it was pounded by international strikes the past two nights.
Rebel fighters in Benghazi had now pushed down that highway to the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, which pro-Qaddafi forces have surrounded and been pounding with artillery and strikes since last week. The rebels swept into the nearby oil port of Zwitina, just northeast of the city, which was also the scene of heavy fighting last week — though now had been abandoned by regime forces. There, a power station hit by shelling on Thursday was still burning, its blackened fuel tank crumpled, with flames and black smoke pouring out.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.