Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi's tanks shelled the area near the hospital in Misrata, east of Tripoli, overnight. This, according to a report in The Financial Times. There have also been reports of fierce fighting between rebels and pro-Qaddafi forces in strategic Ajdabiya. Residents described shelling, gunfire and houses on fire. Qaddafi's attacks came despite five days of airstrikes and coalition attempts to destroy his armor around rebel-held Misrata, where Libya's army continues to press for advantage.

In Misrata, Libya's third-largest city, witnesses said on Wednesday Qaddafi's tanks had pulled back from their positions under air assault from international forces. But later, residents said the tanks had rolled back into the city and resumed shelling.

Misrata resident Muhammad told the BBC, "Our major problem in Misrata is with the snipers. Qaddafi's forces have occupied the main street... which stretches from the town center all the way to the highway and beyond. There are snipers all along the rooftops of that street. They are firing indiscriminately into the main street and the back streets. But the heavy artillery and shelling has stopped since yesterday. In that sense, we are in a much better position."

Another resident quoted by Reuters Thursday said Qaddafi loyalist forces have seized control of the city's port, where there are thousands of stranded foreign workers seeking to leave. The same resident said Western air strikes hit government tanks on the outskirts of the city late on Wednesday, but tanks inside the city remain there and have not been hit.

Misrata, besieged for weeks, is the last major town in western Libya to hold out against the Qaddafi-loyalist counter attack. Hence the importance, from the coalition's point of view, of protecting it from falling. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters it might take the coalition days or weeks to destroy Qaddafi's military, but that it would not take months.

Yesterday, British Air Vice Marshal Greg Bagwell said Qaddafi's air force no longer existed as a fighting force and that the coalition could operate "with near impunity" over the skies of Libya. "We are watching over the innocent people of Libya and ensuring that we protect them from attack," he said. "We have the Libyan ground forces under constant observation and we attack them whenever they threaten civilians or attack population centers."

But it is unclear if the rebels in Misrata can hold out for weeks and coalition members have clearly said that they lack the political will to put boots on the ground.

Map: Wikimedia Commons

More Air Strikes
The French military released a statement Thursday saying French air strikes hit a Libyan air base in the interior of the country during the night. The strikes hit a base approximately 155 miles south of the Libyan coastline, French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard told reporters. He did not elaborate.

Later on Thursday, coalition military planes were reported to have hit the town of Sebha in southern Libya, according to residents and media reports. Sebha, about 480 miles south of Tripoli, is a Qaddafi stronghold and home to an important military base.

There are also reports of coalition air strike in the Tajura region east of Tripoli. Residents in the capital earlier said plumes of black smoke could be seen coming from an area near a military base, although this has not been independently confirmed.  

With the U.S. saying it wants to bow out of its leadership role in the attacks, it is unclear who will assume authority over enforcing the UN sanctioned no-fly zone in the coming weeks. Turkey, a key member of the naval blockade element, has expressed concern over moves for NATO to take over operational command. The U.S., however, is keen to have NATO assume responsibility.