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NATO Agrees To Take Lead In Libyan Military Campaign


Libyan TV Shows Damage From Air Strikes
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Libyan television is airing footage of what it says is a military base in flames after Western air strikes hit Tripoli overnight. Meanwhile, anti-aircraft fire from Libyan gunners was visible in the sky early in the morning. Video by Reuters

WATCH: Libyan television has aired footage of what it says is a military base in flames after Western air strikes hit Tripoli overnight (Reuters video).

NATO ministers have agreed that the alliance will assume control of coalition military operations in Libya, ending days of debate over who the United States would hand off leadership of the mission to.

Agreement had stalled over objections from Muslim member Turkey, but Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has now told reporters in Ankara that "the operation will be handed over to NATO completely."

Reports from Brussels said the deal was reached after a conference call between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the foreign ministers of Turkey, France, and Britain.

U.S. Vice Admiral William Gortney told reporters at a Pentagon briefing that the handoff of lead command could come as soon as this weekend.

Clinton is also set to travel to London next week for an international conference to coordinate the strategy and military operation against Qaddafi's government, according to a U.S. official who spoke to AP before an official announcement expected later today.

UN Security Council Told Qaddafi 'In Violation'

Wary of involving the United States in another military operation in a Middle Eastern Muslim country, President Barack Obama has been determined since the start of the campaign that Washington only occupy the lead role for a few days.

Congressional staff members said Obama plans to send his top military and foreign policy aides to brief members of Congress next week on why he decided to send U.S. forces into Libyan skies. Obama has been criticized by members of both major political parties for acting hastily and without Congress's consent.

Rebel fighters in the desert along the Benghazi-Ajdabiya road on March 24.

Meanwhile at the United Nations, the Security Council -- which last week passed Resolution 1973 authorizing military invention to protect Libyan civilians -- heard from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that Qaddafi's troops are disregarding their own cease-fire pronouncements.

In a briefing on the resolution's implementation, Ban said : "Despite repeated claims by the Libyan authorities, we continue to see no evidence of a cease-fire. Nor have we seen any steps by the Libyan authorities to fulfill their obligations under Resolutions 1970 and 1973."

Human rights abuses "were continuing," Ban added. "Those responsible for crimes against their people will be held accountable."

Strikes In Tripoli

Fierce fighting continued in key Libyan cities on March 24 after a fifth consecutive night of air strikes. As night fell, reports from Tripoli were of antiaircraft fire and three explosions in the capitol and its eastern suburb of Tajura.

Reporters on the ground said at least one blast was heard from the center of the city, while others came from Tajura, where a column of smoke rose from an undetermined location.

State television reported that "civilian and military sites in Tripoli and Tajura" had come under fire from "long-range missiles."

Earlier in the day, the official JANA news agency said coalition raids overnight on Tajura had killed "a large number" of civilians.

Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim late on March 23 pleaded for a halt to the air strikes. "The air strikes -- as what happened today -- did not differentiate between the civilians or the armed personnel," he said. "To start up the national dialogue and get life back to normal, the air strikes should stop immediately."

There were also reports of government tanks pounding an area near the hospital in the rebel-held western city of Misurata, while snipers loyal to Qaddafi were firing indiscriminately.

Witnesses had earlier said the tanks around the besieged city had pulled back from their positions under air assault from international forces. In the east, fierce fighting was reported between rebels and pro-Qaddafi forces in the strategic town of Ajdabiya.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on March 24 that coalition air strikes against Libya had been a "success" and would "continue as long as necessary." Juppe told RTL radio that there had been no reports of civilian casualties caused by allied action, adding that the strikes were "only targeting military sites and nothing else."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, speaking in the House of Commons, said that "the case for this [military] action remains utterly compelling" and cited what he called the "appalling violence" against Libyan citizens.

He also said London continued "to deepen our contacts with the Libyan opposition, including the interim national council based in Benghazi. I spoke to Mahmoud Jebril, the special envoy of the council, on Tuesday [March 22] to discuss the situation on the ground and to invite him to visit London. In the words of the Arab League resolution, the current regime has completely lost its legitimacy."

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reportedly telephoned Obama on March 24 to discuss the Libyan crisis amid Russian worries that the air offensive could soon spill over into a ground campaign specifically aimed at removing Qaddafi from power.

Russia abstained from last week's UN Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya and has expressed objections to its call for "all necessary measures" to protect civilians, and the Libyan issue stirred sharp public disagreement between Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The Kremlin said the telephone call also touched on the two sides' disagreements over a missile-defense shield for Europe and other international security problems.

At the March 24 Pentagon briefing, U.S. Vice Admiral Gortney said the United States had a message for forces and officials loyal to Qaddafi: "Our message is simple: stop fighting, stop killing your own people, stop obeying the orders of Colonel Qaddafi."

with contribution from UN correspondent Nikola Krastev; compiled from agency reports