US says no-fly zone effectively in place


US and allied forces have effectively established a no-fly zone over Libya and halted an offensive by Muammar Gadafy against rebels in Benghazi, the top US military officer said today.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the US led air strikes that began yesterday "took out" Libyan air defences, struck air fields and attacked ground forces near the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

"(Gadafy) hasn't had aircraft or helicopters flying the last couple days. So effectively that no-fly zone has been put in place," the admiral told NBC's Meet the Press programme.

"We have halted him in the vicinity of Benghazi, which is where he was most recently on the march," he said, adding that Western forces had established combat air patrols over the city that would be extended westward toward Tripoli over time.

"The objective will be to attack those forces and ensure that they are unable to continue to attack the innocent civilians," Adm Mullen said.

The Pentagon said in a statement that US Navy Growlers provided electronic support while AV-8B Harriers from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit conducted air strikes against Col Gadafy’s ground forces and air defences.

The US military also used B-2 stealth bombers, according to US media reports.

Adm Mullen emphasised that Western military operations were narrowly focused on protecting civilians and aiding humanitarian efforts under a UN Security Council resolution, not on ending Col Gadafy’s 41-year rule.

"What we expect is (for) him to stay down, not fly his aircraft, not attack his own people and to allow the humanitarian efforts ... to take place," he said.

As a result, the mission could be completed in days or weeks with Col Gadafy still in power. "That's certainly, potentially, one outcome," he said. "Over time, clearly Colonel Gadafy's going to have to make some decisions. He's going to have to make some choices about his own future."

In the next few days, the admiral said, the United States expects to relinquish its leadership of the Libyan operation, dubbed Odyssey Dawn, which also currently includes Britain, France, Canada and Italy. But he did not say who would assume the lead.

The US role would then shift to support operations including intelligence, signal jamming, aerial refuelling and humanitarian efforts.

Adm Mullen said Col Gadafy has sought to protect targets with human shields. But he added that he had seen no reports of civilian casualties from the air strikes, which he said were calculated to minimize "collateral damage."

There has also been no sign that the Libyan leader intends to mobilise his chemical weapons in response to the military operation, the admiral said.