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NATO Libya Airstrikes Destroy 30 Percent Of Gaddafi's Weapons

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LIBYA MILITARY

BRUSSELS — The international aerial onslaught against Moammar Gadhafi's forces has destroyed 30 percent of Libya's military capacity, a senior NATO official said Tuesday.

NATO warplanes have flown 851 sorties in the six days since the alliance took command of all operations from a U.S.-led international force that had been bombing Libya since March 19.

Dutch Brig. Gen. Mark Van Uhm said Canadian Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, who commands the Libyan operation from his headquarters in Naples, briefed NATO's governing body on Tuesday.

"(Bouchard's) assessment is that we have taken out 30 percent of the military capacity of the pro-Gadhafi forces," Van Uhm said.

On Monday, NATO warplanes launched 14 attacks on ground targets in the North African nation, destroying radars, munitions dumps, armored vehicles, and a rocket launcher that was firing when it was struck, he said.

But Van Uhm said pro-Gadhafi forces had changed tactics in recent days in response to the NATO attacks. Libyan forces are now using human shields to prevent more strikes against tanks and other heavy equipment around the coastal city of Misrata, making it impossible for pilots to target them, he said.

Misrata, 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of the Libyan capital of Tripoli, has been under siege and largely cut off from the world for weeks by Gadhafi's forces.

"(Misrata) is obviously the number one priority because of the situation there," Van Uhm said.

Seventy-five percent of the airstrike missions Monday had to return without dropping their bombs or launching their missiles because of this and other factors that made it difficult for pilots to distinguish between civilians and regime troops.

"If they see the target but see humans being used as human shields, they come back," Van Uhm said.

Van Uhm said Libyan government forces were using trucks and light vehicles now to move their forces to the front line, keeping heavy equipment behind.

"We try to identify where those heavy assets are, because we have seen they have chosen to hide themselves into urban areas to prevent being targeted," he said.

Flights by fighters and attack jets have accounted for about 40 percent of the total number of NATO sorties. The rest are by AWACS surveillance aircraft, aerial refueling tankers, maritime patrol planes, search and rescue helicopters and other support aircraft.

United States aircraft ended their combat role against Libya on Monday, but U.S. forces continue to provide key aerial support to NATO allies.

Van Uhm said the U.S. withdrawal had not affected operations on Tuesday.

"The operational tempo has remained the same," he said.

The U.N. authorized military action to prevent attacks by Gadhafi's forces on Libyan civilians.

Van Uhm also addressed an "unfortunate accident" on Saturday in which a NATO airstrike intended to thwart Gadhafi's forces accidentally killed 13 rebel fighters in eastern Libya instead.

"Opposition forces have already explained it was their fault. There had been some celebratory fire in the air which caused a reaction," he said, adding that because of the accident, some of the "very enthusiastic young people" on the rebel side had been moved back from the front lines.

"They have learned their lesson from that," Van Uhm said.

Separately from the aerial operations, NATO navies are enforcing an arms embargo in the Mediterranean Sea off the Libyan coast. Eighteen ships and submarines are engaged in the effort, Van Uhm said. Seventy-six ships have been hailed or checked so far, but no violations have been detected, he said.