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Updated: March 26, 2011 16:19 IST

French jets shoot down Libyan plane

Atul Aneja
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French military ground crew prepare a Mirage 2000 jet fighter for a mission to Libya, at Solenzara 126 Air Base, Corsica island, France on Wednesday. Photo: AP.
French military ground crew prepare a Mirage 2000 jet fighter for a mission to Libya, at Solenzara 126 Air Base, Corsica island, France on Wednesday. Photo: AP.

A sharp escalation of air strikes overnight has, so far, failed to break the stalemate on the battlefield as opposition forces battling troops loyal to Libyan strongman Muammar Qadhafi have been unable to regain ground by capitalising on the western dominance over the skies.

French fighter jets on Thursday shot down a Libyan military plane near the besieged city of Misurata.

This is the first such incident since the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution allowing the use of air power to protect civilians in Libya. Reinforcing the French military assertion, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Thursday that the precedent set in Libya should not go unnoticed by autocratic regimes elsewhere, including the ones in Syria and Saudi Arabia. However, he acknowledged operations in Libya were likely to prolong, and could last days or weeks, but not months.

Western military aircraft, under the cover of darkness early on Thursday, launched a fierce attack on regime tanks and heavy weapons that have been shelling opposition-held Misurata, Libya's third largest city. Engaging their attackers in a cat-and-mouse game, Mr. Qadhafi's loyalists initially withdrew their heavy artillery; but later, after the fighter jets left, the artillery blazed again.

There have been conflicting reports about the status of the Misurata port. The pro-Qadhafi forces had apparently established control over the port. But witnesses said the opposition now held this area after two regime warships withdrew, presumably in the wake of the air attacks. Residents said snipers loyal to the regime had shot a man on Thursday, and posed a constant threat to residents.

The raids by western jets on Ajdabiyah have also been unable to soften the battle lines.

Analysts say despite the effective air support, the anti-regime forces are too weak to pose a major challenge to Mr. Qadhafi's forces, which are better trained and armed. On Wednesday, Ali Tarhouni, the newly appointed finance minister in the opposition's transitional council, revealed the anti-Qadhafi forces possessed only 1,000 trained personnel, backed by a huge number of raw volunteers. Signalling the opposition's growing all-round dependence on the West, he said Britain had pledged $1.1 billion boost the opposition's coffers.

Explaining the surge in air raids, American military officials said it had become possible after around 160 Tomahawk ship-launched missiles had earlier destroyed the regime's air defences, which could have threatened overflying aircraft

Rear Admiral Gerard Hueber, the operational U.S. commander, said regime forces around Misurata, Ajdabiyah and other cites would continue to be attacked as long as they posed a threat to the civilian populations.

In Tripoli, despite the escalation of air strikes, senior regime figures appeared unfazed on Thursday. Engaging the opposition and its western backers in active psychological warfare, Libyan television on Thursday showed horrific images of destruction reportedly caused by western bombardment in civilian areas. The official Jana news agency said western planes had overnight struck Tripoli's Tajoura district thrice, and the third attack killed rescue teams that had arrived after the first two strikes. Soon after daybreak, foreign news agency reporters were taken to the hospital, where they were shown 18 charred bodies, apparently victims of the bombardment.

Regarding Misurata, the Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister, Khaled Kaim said the opposition's claim that the city residents were being starved of water and power, were exaggerated. “It's just a technical problem because of damage and looting,” he said.

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