BENGHAZI, Libya – NATO ships began patrolling off Libya's coast Wednesday as airstrikes, missiles and energized rebels forced Muammar Qaddafi's tanks to roll back from two key western cities, including one that was the hometown of army officers who tried to overthrow him in 1993.
Libya's opposition took haphazard steps to form a government in the east, as they and the U.S.-led force protecting them girded for prolonged and costly fighting. Despite disorganization among the rebels — and confusion over who would ultimately run the international operation — coalition airstrikes and missiles seemed to thwart Qaddafi's efforts to rout his opponents, at least for now.
Anti-aircraft fire lit up the sky in Tripoli late Wednesday, and explosions could be heard.
Coalition aircraft hit a fuel depot in Tripoli, a senior government official told reporters in a late-night news conference. Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim at first denied reports that Qaddafi's compound in Tripoli was hit earlier, then bactracked and said he had no information about that. Other targets Wednesday were near Benghazi and Misrata, he said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged there is no clear end to the international military enforcement of the no-fly zone over Libya, but President Barack Obama said it "absolutely" will not lead to a U.S. land invasion.
From Ajdabiya in the east to Misrata in the west, the coalition's targets included Libyan troops' mechanized forces, mobile surface-to-air missile sites and lines of communications that supply "their beans and their bullets," said Rear Adm. Gerard Hueber, a top U.S. officer in the campaign in Libya.
He asserted that Qaddafi's air force has essentially been defeated. He said no Libyan aircraft had attempted to fly over the previous 24 hours.
"Those aircraft have either been destroyed or rendered inoperable," Hueber told Pentagon reporters by phone from the U.S. command ship in the Mediterranean Sea.
A doctor in Misrata said Qaddafi's tanks fled after the airstrikes, giving a much-needed reprieve to the besieged coastal city, which is inaccessible to human rights monitors or journalists. The airstrikes struck the aviation academy and a vacant lot outside the central hospital, the doctor said.
"Today, for the first time in a week, the bakeries opened their doors," the doctor said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals if Qaddafi's forces take Libya's third-largest city, 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli.
Neither the rebels nor Qaddafi has mustered the force for an outright victory, raising concerns of a prolonged conflict.
Gates said no one was ever under any illusion that the assault would last just two or three weeks. He had no answer when asked about a possible stalemate if Qaddafi hunkers down, and the coalition lacks U.N. authorization to target him.
Obama, when asked about an exit strategy during an interview with the Spanish-language network Univision, didn't lay out a vision for ending the international action, but rather said: "The exit strategy will be executed this week in the sense that we will be pulling back from our much more active efforts to shape the environment."
The administration wants others to lead the way soon: Gates said the U.S. could relinquish control as soon as Saturday. Members of the coalition, however, were still divided over the details.
In a compromise proposal, NATO would be guided by a political committee of foreign ministers from the West and the Arab world. But NATO nations remained deadlocked over the alliance's possible role in enforcing the U.N.-authorized no-fly zone.
NATO warships, meanwhile, started patrolling Wednesday to enforce the U.N. arms embargo against Libya. Alliance spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the action was to "cut off the flow of arms and mercenaries," activity that intelligence reports say is continuing.
Six vessels were involved the first day, and Canada's Brig. General Pierre St. Amand said 16 ships have been offered by NATO members. Five are from Turkey, the organization's sole Muslim member.
Missiles fired from submarines in the Mediterranean, bombs dropped by B-2 stealth bombers and an array of airstrikes easily totaled hundreds of millions of dollars by the fifth day of the coalition campaign.
Hueber said international forces were attacking government troops that have been storming population centers. On Wednesday evening, Libyan state television reported a "Crusader colonialist bombing targeting certain civil and military locations" in Tripoli's Tajoura district — scene of some of the heaviest past protests against Qaddafi.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Qaddafi can end the crisis quickly — by leaving power. She said the U.S. wants the Libyan government to "make the right decision" by instituting a cease-fire, withdrawing forces from cities and preparing for a transition that doesn't include the longtime dictator.
Some attacks by pro-Qaddafi forces continued in Misrata, where the doctor and rebel leaders said pro-Qaddafi snipers were firing on civilians from rooftops. Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, a spokesman for the opposition forces, said 16 people were killed today, including five children.
Ghoga said people are being treated "in the hallways of buildings" because they did not dare go outside.
In Zintan, a city of 100,000 about 75 miles (120 kilometers) south of Tripoli, a resident said Qaddafi's forces were shelling from the foot of a nearby mountain, but rebels forced their retreat from all but one side of the city. After five days of fighting, Ali al-Azhari said, rebel fighters captured or destroyed several tanks and seized trucks loaded with 1,200 Grad missiles and fuel tanks. They captured five Qaddafi troops.
Al-Azhari, who spoke to The Associated Press by phone from the city, said one officer told rebels he was ordered "to turn Zintan into a desert to be smashed and flattened." Resentment against Qaddafi runs high in Zintan because it was the hometown of many of the detained army officers who took part in a failed coup in 1993.
Ghoga said 16 people died Tuesday and Wednesday in Zintan, which has no electricity or landlines.
The withdrawal of the tanks from Misrata and Zintan was a rare success for the rebels, who are struggling daily against Qaddafi forces in the eastern gateway city of Ajdabiya. The disorganized opposition holds much of the east but has been unable to get back on the offensive despite the international air campaign that saved it from the brink of defeat.
Iman Bughaigis, a spokeswoman for the rebel force, said the tentative beginnings of an interim administration on Wednesday reflected the realization that they must organize. She said the leader of the governing body would be Mahmoud Jibril, a U.S.-educated planning expert who defected from the Qaddafi regime as the uprising gained momentum.
"At the beginning, we thought it would just take a week or two weeks" to depose Qaddafi, she said. "Now we know it will take time. We need a government to liberate the eastern territories. It was just because there was a vacuum. We don't have political experience. We are learning as the days go by. Now there is an understanding that we need a structure."
Details from the rebels were sketchy and sometimes contradictory. Ghoga said Jibril was appointed to lead the new body about a month ago, and that it cannot be called a government because rebels do not control the whole country. "This is a working body for an emergency period only," he said.
Qaddafi, meanwhile, was defiant in his first public appearance in a week late Tuesday.
State TV said he spoke from his Bab Al-Aziziya residential compound, the same one hit by a cruise missile Sunday night. "In the short term, we'll beat them, in the long term, we'll beat them," he said.
Libyan state TV showed footage it labeled as "the crusader imperialism bombs civilians" — a house that was demolished and burning. Weeping women slapped their faces and heads in grief while men carried a barefoot girl covered in blood on a stretcher to an ambulance. A man screamed "a whole family was killed."
Qaddafi's regime has alleged that dozens of civilians have been killed in the international bombardment. The Pentagon on Wednesday said there was no evidence of that.
Michael reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Hadeel al-Shalchi in Tripoli, Libyam Pauline Jelinek in Washington and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.