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Allied air blitz forces Gaddafi tanks to retreat

By Donald Macintyre and Kim Sengupta

US and European-led forces pushed Muammar Gaddafi's tanks back from the besieged western Libyan city of Misrata yesterday.

Libyan TV also reported that Tripoli was under attack last night from allied air strikes.

“Tripoli is being subjected to an imperialist, Crusader air raid against civilian and military installations,” it reported.

After a weeks-long siege of Misrata by Gaddafi loyalists in an increasingly desperate battle, international forces were reported to have hit a base south of the city. Since the attack, one resident told Reuters, pro-Gaddafi forces “haven't fired a single artillery round”.

A doctor in the city told Associated Press that the regime tanks had started to flee after midnight when the first air strike hit an aviation academy in the city and a vacant lot outside the hospital, which is under maintenance.

But a top US officer, Rear Admiral Gerard Huber, said the regime troops had not pulled back. He said aircraft were targeting mechanised forces, artillery, missile batteries and other targets nearby.

The attack came as the western forces said they had successfully established domination of the Libyan skies and are now able to devote their attention to the regime's ground forces. It brought respite to a population which has had water cut off for days and faced 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 apparently remained under attack from the government despite claims in Tripoli that all offensive operations have been 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 protect civilians.”

Rebel forces were, meanwhile, yesterday still outside the city of Ajdabiya, unable to break through defensive lines of regime forces.

Gaddafi's troops used heavy weapons against rebels who had been carrying out ambushes. Some militants claimed that large parts of the city had been reduced to rubble. However, British reporters, during visits to Ajdabiya on two consecutive days, saw nothing like the scale of destruction claimed by the rebels, though some buildings were damaged.

The provisional administration in Benghazi said Mahmoud Jabril has been appointed head of an interim government and will 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.

Meanwhile, senior government sources have warned that Gaddafi supporters may attempt to carry out a terrorist attack on UK soil in revenge for military action in Libya.

The security services have told ministers that a number of conversations between British-based Libyans suggesting support for a revenge attack have been intercepted recently. The intelligence, which was passed to Nato allies, was recorded shortly before the start of the no-fly zone operation.

The intelligence was deemed “reliable” by MI5, an Italian newspaper reported.

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