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US: Allied Airstrikes Help Libyan Rebels Indirectly

US Navy Vice Admiral William Gortney (file photo)
US Navy Vice Admiral William Gortney (file photo)
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Al Pessin

The U.S. military says coalition air strikes in Libya, under the United Nations Security Council mandate, have helped the rebels advance toward the capital, Tripoli, and that the attacks continue to hamper the Libyan army's ability to control, deploy and supply its forces.  
U.S. Navy Vice Admiral William Gortney says the international air campaign against Libyan forces intensified over the weekend and that more of the flights were handled by other members of the coalition, particularly those that involved attacks ground targets.

"From Friday to Sunday, there was an increase in strikes from 91 to 107," said Admiral Gortney. "But the majority each day were flown by our partner nation pilots.  I know it seems as though I'm trying to hammer home a point here, and I guess I am.  It's simply this - U.S. military participation in this operation, as we have said all along, is changing to one primarily of support."

The admiral, who is the operations chief for the senior U.S. military command, says aircraft from five NATO member countries have participated in airstrikes on Libya in recent days and that they were joined by aircraft from Qatar.  He says aircraft from the United Arab Emirates will join the operation in the coming days and that U.S. flights are focusing more on refueling, surveillance and electronic warfare.

Gortney says the attacks by allied aircraft and missiles are designed to weaken the forces of the Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and prevent them from attacking Libyan civilians. He says U.S. forces have received no confirmed reports of civilian casualties caused by coalition airstrikes.

The admiral says the attacks are not coordinated with the Libyan opposition, but he notes that they have helped opposition forces advance westward toward Tripoli.

"We're not in direct support of the opposition," he said. "That's not part of our mandate, sir.  And we're not coordinating with the opposition. Our strategy continues to be to pressure him [Moammar Gadhafi] where we think it's going to give us the best effect. We see that, given the events that you see on the battlefield."

Opposition rebels have advanced close to Mr. Gadhafi's hometown and stronghold, Sirte - a key town along the road to Tripoli. Admiral Gortney says coalition forces are attacking Libyan government forces near the town, even though civilians are not under threat there.  He says the airstrikes are aimed at hurting the Libyan army's ability to support its forces elsewhere.

The admiral also says that opposition gains could be fragile, and that even now, weeks after the Libyan rebellion began, the United States does not know very much about the rebel leaders.

"Clearly, the opposition is not well organized and it is not a very robust organization," said Admiral Gortney. "That's obvious. So any gain that they make is tenuous, based on that.  We're not talking with the opposition.  We would like a much better understanding of the opposition. We don't have it. So, yes, it does matter to us and we're trying to fill in those knowledge gaps."

Gortney reports there were 195 coalition airstrikes in Libya on Saturday and Sunday - 103 of them by non-U.S. forces. He says command of the air campaign and the sea-based arms embargo already has been transferred to NATO and that command of the humanitarian operation will be transferred in the next few days.  

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