Air raids hit Gadhafi stronghold of Sirte
WHO: President Barack Obama
WHAT: Televised address to nation on Libya.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today.
RAS LANOUF, Libya
International air raids targeted Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte for the first time Sunday night as rebels quickly closed in on the regime stronghold, a formidable obstacle that must be overcome for government opponents to reach the capital Tripoli.
A heavy bombardment of Tripoli also began after nightfall, with at least nine loud explosions and anti-aircraft fire heard, an Associated Press reporter in the city said.
Earlier in the day, rebels regained two key oil complexes along the coastal highway that runs from the opposition-held eastern half of the country toward Sirte and beyond that, to the capital. Moving quickly westward, the advance retraced their steps in the first rebel march toward the capital. But this time, the world’s most powerful air forces have eased the way by pounding Gadhafi’s military assets for the past week.
Sirte is strategically located about halfway between the rebel-held east and the Gadhafi-controlled west along the Mediterranean coast. It is a bastion of support for Gadhafi that will be difficult for the rebels to overrun and the entrances to the city have reportedly been mined. If the rebels could somehow overcome Sirte, momentum for a march on the capital would skyrocket.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he could not offer a timetable for how long the Libya operation could last.
In a sign of U.S. confidence that the weeklong assault on Libya has tamed Gadhafi’s air defenses, the Pentagon has reduced the amount of naval firepower arrayed against him, officials said Sunday.
The move, not yet publicly announced, reinforces the White House message of a diminishing U.S. role — a central point in President Barack Obama’s national address tonight on Libya.
The U.N. Security Council authorized the operation to protect Libyan civilians after Gadhafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who demanded that he step down after nearly 42 years in power. The airstrikes have crippled Gadhafi’s forces, allowing rebels to advance less than two weeks after they had seemed at the brink of defeat.
Now that the rebels have regained control of two key oil ports, they are making tentative plans to exploit Libya’s most valuable natural resource. But production is at a trickle, the foreign oil workers and their vital expertise have fled the country, and even talk of a marketing deal with Qatar seems murky at best.