Fighting raged on Tuesday between forces loyal to Moamer Kadhafi and insurgents, despite a UN-mandated no-fly zone and amid reports the Libyan leader may be looking for a way out of the conflict.
As a senior US officer said Kadhafi forces were still attacking civilians, doubts persisted over the best way to continue the campaign to stop Kadhafi, and where it was leading.
However, US President Barack Obama said there has been a “significant reduction” in US flights over Libya, and he expected “clarity” on the future command structure of allied military operations “over the next several days.”
He was cutting short a Latin America trip to fly home to meet his security team about the Libya conflict, the White House said.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told ABC News that people close to Kadhafi have been contacting Libya’s allies worldwide to see how they can “get out of this.”
“We’ve heard about… people close to him reaching out to people that they know around the world — Africa, the Middle East, Europe, North America, beyond — saying what do we do? How do we get out of this?” she said.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said earlier that future actions of the coalition, which began air strikes on Saturday on Kadhafi military installations, depend in part on the embattled Libyan leader.
“The military operations could stop at any moment. All it would take is for the Tripoli regime to adhere precisely and completely with UN Security Council resolutions, and to accept a genuine ceasefire,” Juppe said.
He called on Kadhafi to withdraw troops engaged in military advances and send them “back to their barracks.”
However, Libyan anti-aircraft fire opened up over the capital after nightfall again on Tuesday, amid the sound of far-off explosions, AFP journalists reported.
Kadhafi himself made a public appearance at his Bab Al-Aziziyah compound in Tripoli that was the target on Sunday of a coalition missile strike, state TV reported.
In televised remarks, he said Libya was “ready for battle, be it long or short.”
“We will win this battle,” footage showed Kadhafi telling supporters at the compound. “The masses were the strongest anti-air defences.”
In reports of fighting on Tuesday, residents of Yafran, 130 kilometres (80 miles) southwest of Tripoli, said at least nine people had been killed in clashes between the two sides.
Rebels also said they were under intense attack in their Misrata enclave, east of Tripoli, which has been besieged by Kadhafi’s forces for weeks, with four children killed on Tuesday.
But rebels also said they had managed to repulse loyalists and retake the outskirts of the western town of Zintan.
A US F-15 jet crashed in rebel-held eastern Libya late on Monday following a malfunction, but the two crew members ejected and were safe.
A standoff persisted in eastern Libya, where Kadhafi forces in and around Ajdabiya, south of the insurgents’ capital of Benghazi, easily repulsed attempts by the disorganised and ill-armed rebels to advance.
Obama told a news conference in El Salvador that he believed that Washington will “fairly shortly” be able to say that the goal of imposing a no-fly zone in Libya had been reached.
“I have absolutely no doubt that we will be able to transfer the control of this operation to an international coalition,” he added.
Earlier, his Defence Secretary Robert Gates said after Monday’s third night of strikes on Kadhafi’s strongholds and defence structure that “significant military fighting that has been going on should recede in the next few days.”
Destroying radar and missiles under Kadhafi’s control would pave the way for a no-fly zone that could be patrolled by combat aircraft, with the United States assuming a supporting role, Gates said in Moscow.
Coalition forces, led by the United States, France and Britain and including some other European states and Arab country Qatar, are acting under UN Security Council resolution 1973 authorising “all necessary means” to protect civilians.
There is coordination but no unified command, and moves to hand over control of the operation to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation are dividing the alliance.
Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed that NATO should play a key role in the command structure of the Libya mission, the White House said.
“They reviewed the substantial progress that’s been made in terms of halting the advance of Kadhafi’s forces on Benghazi as well as the establishment of a no-fly zone,” spokesman Ben Rhodes said.
NATO ambassadors resumed talks on Tuesday after “very difficult” discussions on Monday which failed to overcome their divisions.
But a diplomat said they had agreed to use the organisation’s naval power to enforce an arms embargo on Libya ordered under UN Resolution 1973.
France has doubts about the impact on Arab countries of NATO taking control — though the Arab League has backed the no-fly zone — while Germany refused to vote for Resolution 1973.
Belgian and Spanish warplanes began patrolling Libyan skies on Monday, British Typhoon fighters and Canadian jets launched their first missions from Italian bases, and a Greek source said France’s aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle should join in from waters off Crete, probably by Wednesday.
The Netherlands will contribute six F-16 fighters, about 200 soldiers, a mine hunter ship and a tanker plane to the NATO effort, the government said on Tuesday.
Italian pilots said they had helped suppress air defences, despite Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose country has close ties with former colony Libya, saying Italian planes “are not firing and will not fire.”
Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci said the Western-led air strikes were disproportionate, amid US and British efforts to bring more Arab states on board.
A spokesman for Britain’s Cameron said London was talking to Arab nations in a bid to “develop” the coalition.
And the White House said Obama and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to seek a “broad-based international effort, including Arab states.”
World oil prices advanced: in New York, crude for April delivery closed at $104 dollars a barrel, up $1.67, while in London Brent North Sea crude for delivery in May rose 74 cents to $115.70.
Washington slapped placed sanctions on 14 firms controlled by Libya’s National Oil Corp, tightening a financial noose on a key source of funds for the Kadhafi regime.
Meanwhile, it emerged that three western journalists who went missing in eastern Libya last week, including two from Agence France-Presse, were arrested by Kadhafi’s forces on Saturday.
Regime spokesman Ibrahim Mussa said late on Tuesday that Kadhafi had received an appeal from AFP chairman Emmanuel Hoog and asked the “Libyan state and government to release these journalists and indeed they are going to be released within the next hour or two.”
Hoog wrote to Kadhafi on Tuesday, asking that he free AFP’s Dave Clark and Roberto Schmidt, and Joe Raedle from the Getty agency, who had not been heard from since Friday evening.