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Gaddafi's fighters forced back

Nato ships have begun patrolling off Libya's coast as air strikes, missiles and energised rebels forced Muammar Gaddafi's tanks to roll back from two key western cities, including one that was the hometown of army officers who tried to overthrow him in 1993.

Libya's opposition took haphazard steps to form a government in the east, as they and the US-led force protecting them readied for prolonged and costly fighting.

Despite disorganisation among the rebels - and confusion over who would ultimately run the international operation - coalition air strikes and missiles seemed to thwart Gaddafi's efforts to rout his opponents, at least for now.

Anti-aircraft fire lit up the sky in Tripoli late on Wednesday, and explosions could be heard. Coalition aircraft hit a fuel depot in Tripoli.

US defence secretary Robert Gates acknowledged there was no clear end to the international military enforcement of the no-fly zone over Libya, but President Barack Obama said it "absolutely" will not lead to a U.S. land invasion.

From Ajdabiya in the east to Misrata in the west, the coalition's targets included Libyan troops' mechanised forces, mobile surface-to-air missile sites and lines of communications that supply "their beans and their bullets", said Rear Admiral Gerard Hueber, a top US officer in the campaign in Libya.

He claimed Gaddafi's air force has essentially been defeated and said no Libyan aircraft had attempted to fly over the previous 24 hours.

Mr Gates said no one was ever under any illusion that the assault would last just two or three weeks. He had no answer when asked about a possible stalemate if Gaddafi goes to ground, and the coalition lacks UN authorisation to target him.

Mr Obama, when asked about an exit strategy during an interview, didn't lay out a vision for ending the international action, but rather said: "The exit strategy will be executed this week in the sense that we will be pulling back from our much more active efforts to shape the environment."

Mr Gates said the US could relinquish control as soon as Saturday, but the two key allies in spearheading attacks on Libya - the UK and France - are divided on Nato's responsibilities. Prime Minister David Cameron is content for Nato to take the lead, but French president Nicolas Sarkozy, backed by Turkey and Germany, wants the Alliance kept in a support role, with strategic decisions taken only by the governments in the military coalition.

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