BRUSSELS – NATO has made it clear that rebel forces in Libya are not impervious to bombardment if they attack civilians.
Canadian Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, commander of the NATO operation which assumed control of Libyan airspace on Thursday, said anyone attacking civilians "would be ill-advised to continue such activities. I recommend that you cease such activities."
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said "This applies to both sides, whoever targets risks becoming a target. We will apply the mandate across the board."
But Lungescu emphasized that the issue was hypothetical because the U.N. resolution mandating NATO's intervention had been triggered by the systematic attacks of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's security forces against civilians, and not by any action of the rebels.
NATO said the allies had supplied a total of 205 aircraft and 21 navy vessels for the operation, which includes patrolling the seas off Libya to prevent the delivery of weapons to the warring sides.
The U.S. contributed 90 aircraft and one warship. Among the 14 nations listed, France provided 33 aircraft and one ship, and Britain 17 planes and two warships.
The hand-over from the U.S., which had been leading the impromptu group of countries bombing forces loyal to Gadhafi, "has been seamless with no gaps in the effort," Bouchard told journalists from his headquarters in Naples, Italy.
His remarks were transmitted by video link to other journalists in Brussels.
NATO aircraft had already flown more than 90 sorties since the alliance took over command at 0600 GMT (2 a.m. EDT), Bouchard said.
Bouchard also said NATO would investigate a claim by the Vatican's envoy in Libya that airstrikes in Tripoli during the night had killed 40 civilians — though he noted that the alleged incident was said to have taken place before NATO took command.
"I am aware of this news report," he said. "I take every one of those issues seriously, but our mission began ... today."
The report by the Fides news agency quoted Bishop Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, the apostolic vicar of Tripoli, as saying he had learned that a building in the district of Buslim had collapsed during bombing, killing 40 people inside.
Bouchard said the alliance had very strict rules of engagement, and was very careful in going after any targets.
NATO's assumption of command comes at a sensitive moment in the war between the rebels and loyalist forces. Gadhafi's ground troops have nearly reversed the gains rebels made since the international airstrikes began. The battlefield setbacks have led to increased calls for the international community to supply weapons to the lightly armed rebels.
The latest fighting centered on Brega, a town important to Libya's oil industry on the coastal road that leads to Tripoli. Citizens also have fled Ajdabiya, a rebel-held city about 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the east of Brega, for fear that government forces are on their way.
Speaking in Stockholm, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Thursday the alliance doesn't support U.S. and British suggestions that the U.N. mandate for the international military operation in Libya allows arming rebels.
Britain and the U.S. believe that existing U.N. Security Council resolutions on Libya could allow for foreign governments to arm the rebels, despite an arms embargo being in place.
In Brussels, NATO's top officer, Italian Adm. Giampaolo Di Paola, declined repeatedly to say whether the alliance would intercept any ship carrying weapons to the rebels, calling the question hypothetical.
Di Paola said about 20 of the alliance's 28 members had contributed military assets to the campaign, and that several other regional nations were joining them in the effort.
When asked whether the alliance would use intelligence collected by CIA agents in Libya — in the wake of new revelations that small teams of operatives are working there — Di Paola replied: "We are collecting intelligence from our allies. We are not questioning which sources they are coming from."
Karl Ritter in Stockholm and Victor Simpson in Rome contributed to this report.