Tanks return after fleeing but air force is 'destroyed'

Just hours after US and European-led forces forced Muammar Gaddafi's tanks to retreat from the city of Misrata, residents said those troops were once more closing in.

But the key difference is that this time, the ground forces have no air support. A senior British commander said Libya's airforce had been effectively destroyed and Air Vice-Marshal Greg Bagwell claimed the allies could now operate "with near impunity" over Libya.

After a weeks-long siege of Misrata by Gaddafi loyalists, international forces were reported to have hit a base south of the city. A doctor in the city told the AP news agency the regime's tanks had started to flee after the first airstrikes. But the doctor added last night before the phone line was cut off: "Government tanks are closing in on Misrata hospital and shelling the area." A top US officer, Rear Admiral Gerard Hueber, confirmed that the regime troops had not pulled back.

After establishing domination of the Libyan skies, Western forces are expected to devote their attention to the regime's ground forces – bringing hope to a population which has had no water for days and faces food shortages and continuous shelling. The doctor said: "Today the bakeries have been able to open for the first time."

Other rebels in the west of the Libya apparently remained under attack from the government despite claims in Tripoli that all offensive operations have ceased. Residents of the rebel-held town of Zintan said the bombardment of their city had resumed, killing at least six.

"The town is completely surrounded," one resident, Abdulrahman, said by telephone. "They are getting reinforcements. Troops backed with tanks and vehicles are coming. We appeal to the allied forces to come and protect civilians."

Rebel forces were meanwhile yesterday still outside the city of Ajdabiya, unable to break through the lines of regime forces. Colonel Gaddafi's troops used heavy weapons in built-up areas against rebels who had been carrying out ambushes. Some militants claimed parts of the city were reduced to rubble. However, The Independent, during visits to Ajdabiya on two consecutive days, saw nothing like the scale of destruction claimed by the rebels.

The provisional administration in Benghazi said Mahmoud Jabril had been appointed head of an interim government and would form a cabinet. This, in effect, meant that Mustapha Abdul Jalil, a former regime minister who, at one stage, had proclaimed himself the leader, had lost a power struggle.

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