U.S. Sen. John McCain called for increased military support for Libya’s rebels on Friday, including weapons, training and stepped-up airstrikes, in a full-throated endorsement of the opposition in its fight to oust Muammar Qadhafi.

In the Libyan capital, meanwhile, a senior official said government troops would step back and allow local armed tribesmen to deal with rebels in the besieged city of Misrata.

The action came a day after the U.S. began flying armed drones to bolster NATO airstrikes, and having the tribesmen take up the fight could make it harder for the Predators to distinguish them from Misrata’s civilians or the rebels.

Early Saturday, loud booms were heard in Tripoli, apparently from NATO airstrikes.

Reporters were taken to an unpaved plot next to Qadhafi’s sprawling Bab Aziziyeh residential compound in Tripoli. They were shown two craters, apparently from missiles that had pierced through thick layers of reinforced concrete, laying bare what looked like a bunker system. Eight narrow military-issue metal crates were stacked next to one of the craters.

About two dozen Qadhafi supporters arrived at the scene, waving green flags in support of the Libyan leader.

McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the United States and other nations should recognize the opposition’s political leadership as the “legitimate voice of the Libyan people.” The White House disagreed, saying it was for the Libyan people to decide who their leaders are.

McCain also called the rebels “patriots” with no links to al-Qaeda, in contrast to what some critics have suggested, and added they should receive Qadhafi assets that were frozen by other countries.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, said in Iraq that although the timing was hard to predict, the eventual ouster of Qadhafi and his family from power “is certain.”

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