A senior U.S. military officer said on Wednesday that coalition strikes on Libya appear to have destroyed the country's air force, while not causing any known civilian casualties.
Rear Admiral Gerard Hueber, chief of staff of Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn, spoke to reporters at the Pentagon from aboard the USS Mount Whitney in the Mediterranean Sea.
He said coalition forces had flown 175 sorties over a 24 hour period ending Wednesday morning. The proportion flown by U.S. aircraft has dropped to a little more than half - or 63 sorties, he said. As a result, he added, Libya no longer has an operable air force.
"Libyan air forces have been interdicted or atritted," said Admiral Hueber. "Those aircraft have either been destroyed or rendered inoperable. We have no confirmed flight activity by regime forces over the past 24 hours."
He added that there were no reports of civilian casualties as a result of the air campaign.
Hueber said the coalition is now targeting tanks, artillery and rocket launchers and moving the attacks westward to protect the cities of Ajdabiya and Misrata. Hueber said there was no indication that forces loyal to the Libyan leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, had stopped attacking civilian populations, as required by the U.N. Security Council's resolution establishing the no-fly zone.
Hueber said the objective of the mission is not to oust the Libyan leader, but to protect civilians and enable humanitarian aid to reach them.
In Cairo, Defense Secretary Robert Gates cautiously suggested that opposition fighters who suffered recently may now have an opportunity to regroup following the attacks on the Gadhafi air force.
"I think a lot of the people who were in opposition and who played a role in the early days have hunkered down," said Secretary Gates. "And it may be that the changed circumstances, where he can't use his aircraft and where he's more challenged in using his armor - [they] may return to the fight. But we just don't know that now."
Gates said that the U.S. is still planning to hand over the key role in the attacks on Libya to its coalition allies.