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Gaddafi's air force 'destroyed' by coalition

The international coalition has wiped out Muammar Gaddafi's air force and no RAF planes have come under Libyan attack during the operation, a senior commander said today.

RAF Air Vice-Marshal Greg Bagwell said the allied forces had "taken away (Mr Gaddafi's) eyes and ears" and "destroyed the majority of his air force".

Speaking at the southern Italian air base of Gioia del Colle, where the RAF fighter pilots are based, he said: "Effectively, their air force no longer exists as a fighting force and his integrated air defence system and command and control networks are severely degraded to the point that we can operate with near impunity across Libya."

The destruction of Gaddafi's capabilities was carried out by a combination of bombs and missiles dropped from aircraft and sea missiles.

RAF jets, which continue to patrol the no-fly zone over the north African country, have so far remained unscathed by the action.

"I don't know what he's shooting at but he can't hit us," AVM Bagwell said of the Libyan leader.

In the four days since the allied mission swung into action, the operation has progressed from long-range strikes against key military targets in Libya to one of enforcement of the no-fly zone.

The coalition partners say they are watching over the "innocent people of Libya" and protecting them from attack.

But there are also still targets "in various places," AVM Bagwell said.

"We have the Libyan ground forces under constant observation and we attack them whenever they threaten or attack civilians or population centres," he added.

And he hinted that the British fighters expect to be in it for some time yet.

Asked about how long the mission might last, he said: "You'll have to ask Colonel Gaddafi how long he wants to go on for but we're here for the long term."

The seven international partners have achieved in days what would have previously taken months or years, he added, praising the "Herculean effort" of the RAF men and women taking part in the operation.

"Our people in the air and on the ground, deployed and home-based, military or civil service, have been the inspiration and the engine behind this operation," he said.

"Their ingenuity, hard work, courage and spirit have been ever present."

AVM Bagwell visited the Italian compound this afternoon to pay a brief visit to the RAF members stationed there.

Four RAF Tornados and three Typhoons have flown off from the base today.

Despite the crippling of his defences, a defiant Gaddafi has promised victory over the coalition.

In a televised address last night, he said: "In the short term, we'll beat them. In the long term, we'll beat them."

He declared that the attacks breached the United Nations charter and had been carried out "by a bunch of fascists".

This came as US president Barack Obama agreed with Prime Minister David Cameron that Nato should play a key role in the allied enforcement of the UN mandate.

The alliance has agreed to lead efforts to ensure an arms embargo is observed and has drawn up plans "if needed" to take charge of the no-fly zone.

Nato ambassadors meeting in Brussels have so far failed to agree whether it should take over when the United States relinquishes command in the next few days.

Meanwhile, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton told ABC News that she understood people close to Gaddafi were in touch with other states about the situation.

In an interview, she said: "We've heard about other people close to him reaching out to people that they know around the world, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, North America, beyond, saying what do we do? How do we get out of this? What happens next?

"I'm not aware that he personally has reached out, but I do know that people, allegedly on his behalf, have been reaching out."