The hunt for Gaddafi
Libyan leader goes to ground amid new wave of air strikes
Published 21/03/2011 | 05:00
ALLIED forces were last night trying to establish the location of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi after the Libyan leader went underground amid the massive bombardment of his country.
Col Gaddafi disappeared from Bab al-Azizia, his compound in central Tripoli, as Libya was plunged into a second night of military conflict.
His disappearance could mean he has left the compound to evade probable attack, or could represent a double-bluff to fox the coalition.
The Libyan leader tried to prevent a second wave of air strikes by announcing another ceasefire from 7pm yesterday, but American F-16 fighters took off from Italian air bases within an hour amid widespread scepticism over the announcement.
Anti-aircraft fire was heard in Tripoli over Col Gaddafi's residence and the American authorities broadcast warnings to local residents to not interfere with the military operation.
Loud explosions were heard in the Libyan capital last night and a plume of smoke was reported to be coming from near the dictator's home.
Yesterday, an increasingly erratic Col Gaddafi initially refused to back down following the first round of air strikes from the UN-backed allies, declaring that he was arming more than one million of his people for a "long war".
However, as the second round began a spokesman for the Libyan military issued a statement ordering all units in the country to observe a ceasefire.
It is only likely to become clear today whether the ceasefire is genuine, or is the "sham" that last week's ceasefire has emerged to be.
"I question anything Gaddafi says," a spokesman for the US Pentagon said.
"He called a ceasefire last week then ordered his troops in to Benghazi."
Col Gaddafi's defiance led to suggestions that British ground forces might need to be deployed. Admiral Mike Mullen, the head of the US armed forces, warned of a potential stalemate as he admitted he was unclear of the "endgame".
British Defence Secretary Liam Fox raised the possibility that Col Gaddafi could be personally targeted in air strikes.
Senior British defence sources insisted no plans were being drawn up to send in forces on the ground but several ministers refused to rule out the possibility.
Foreign Secretary William Hague indicated ground forces could be used for specific missions under the terms of the UN mandate, providing they did not become an "occupying force".
US President Barack Obama has already ruled out the use of the American military and British Prime Minister David Cameron is likely to come under pressure today to clarify the UK's terms of involvement in the international mission.
The coalition suffered its first diplomatic blow yesterday when the Arab League criticised the operation, expressing concern about a "bombardment" rather than the enforcement of a no-fly zone. Russia and China also condemned the attack.
On Saturday, forces from the US, Britain, France and Canada launched a series of bombing raids on Libyan airfields, tanks and air defence systems. Qatari and Italian planes were due to join the offensive last night.
More than 110 cruise missiles were fired from ships and submarines to destroy dozens of tanks and aircraft.
Commanders said most of Libya's military air capacity was destroyed with few, or no, civilian casualties.
Senior military officials said they were "entirely comfortable" with the success of the attacks, which had struck "high-value targets" in Tripoli and other parts of Libya.
Adm Mullen said Col Gaddafi was no longer able to deploy helicopters and aircraft, meaning that "effectively the no-fly zone has been put in place".
However, he warned that the dictator could use chemical weapons, including a "significant quantity" of mustard gas in the Libyan desert.
Yesterday afternoon, there were reports that regime forces had entered the coastal town of Misrata. The regime was also said to be using civilians as "human shields" around key military sites.
Residents reported that Col Gaddafi's tank commanders had pushed through to the centre of the city, triggering clashes that had caused dozens of casualties. A spokesman for the rebels said: "There are so many casualties we cannot count them. He is using a scorched earth strategy. Burning and destroying everything in his way."
This presents coalition forces with a dilemma as air force cannot easily be used to stop Libyan aggression in dense urban areas without the risk of large numbers of civilian casualties.