A handout photo issued by the French Defense Ministry shows a Mirage 2000… (European Pressphoto Agency )
Reporting from Washington and Tripoli, Libya — The multinational coalition attacking Libya with airstrikes Tuesday night hit the nation's capital, Tripoli, and its surroundings for the fourth time in the last several days.
At least three loud explosions, presumably coalition airstrikes or missiles, shook the earth as antiaircraft and tracer fire lighted up the sky about 9 p.m.
In central Tripoli's Algeria Square, supporters of the regime began blowing their car horns and chanting slogans in support of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi.
Photos: U.S., allies launch attacks in Libya
Earlier in the day, authorities took journalists on a tour of a naval port, called the People's Port in eastern Tripoli, that was struck the previous night in an airstrike. At least six missiles had hit the site, which was filled with the charred remains of Russia-made antiaircraft launchers, surface-to-air missiles and military vehicles.
Some Libyan authorities said it was a mere training and repair facility that was not in active use. But another official said it was used to "protect Libya's coastline" and had been employed in joint naval exercises with the armed forces of Egypt, Italy and, ironically, France, which is a leading member of the coalition attacking Libya.
Among the officers at the site, the mood was defiant. "We are not afraid of these missiles or bombs," said navy Capt. Fahmi Sokni, 56. "We are very sad about losing our things like this. But we are still standing. We will repair it and make it whole again."
Earlier, as the American-led air attack pounded Libya for a third day and Kadafi's embattled forces retreated south from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, the Pentagon said the no-fly zone soon would be extended, paving the way for the United States to eventually hand off command of the mission to its allies.
Kadafi's forces near Benghazi "now possess little will or capability to resume offensive operations," said Gen. Carter Ham, the officer in charge of the operation, briefing Pentagon reporters via video from his headquarters in Germany. The United States already has begun taking a smaller role in the mission, he added. Fewer than half the air missions flown Monday were piloted by Americans.
The no-fly zone will soon be expanded across the coastal north to Tripoli, Port Brega and Misurata. It is unclear to whom the U.S. will hand over the operation, though.
Europe remained divided Tuesday morning over who would eventually assume command of the mission over Libya. In London, British Maj. Gen. John Lorimer told reporters that "the operation remains under U.S. command" at the moment.
In Brussels, ambassadors to NATO reconvened a meeting to hash out the contentious issue of whether the alliance would take over from the U.S. France has expressed reservations that the Muslim world would react negatively to NATO leadership of the effort, and Turkey, another NATO member, has also opposed the idea.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his compatriots Tuesday that his country would never be party to a mission "pointing guns" at the Libyan people.
But other countries, including Italy, have insisted that the alliance take the lead.
Although the initial phase of the assault had stopped the Libyan advance on Benghazi, the larger goal of the U.S.-led operation — preventing attacks on civilians throughout the country — is a much tougher military challenge, according to current and former military officers.
As the U.S. and its allies have discovered in past conflicts, it is no simple matter to use fighters and bombers to prevent a determined adversary from targeting enemies on the ground. Even if the airstrikes succeed in halting large-scale attacks, there is the danger that Kadafi will shift to less obvious but no less deadly tactics, including the use of security forces and armed gangs to terrorize the ragtag opposition that has tried to drive him from power.
If the killing continues, the White House and its allies could face growing pressure to expand the military operation, either by broadening the list of targets struck from the air, by arming the rebels whom the U.S. admits it knows little about or by explicitly going after Kadafi in an effort to oust him.
President Obama reiterated Monday that "it is U.S. policy that Kadafi has to go." But Pentagon officials have said the airstrikes and missile attacks have not been specifically aimed at the longtime leader.
In fact, Ham said he had received no information about the whereabouts of Kadafi. But the general added that the possibility that Kadafi might use surrogates to launch a terrorist attack outside Libya in response to the air attacks "is a very, very legitimate concern."