Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance assumed sole command of all air operations over Libya at 0600GMT (2 a.m. EDT) Thursday.
The operation — codenamed Unified Protector — now includes enforcement of the no-fly zone, maintaining the arms embargo on Libya, and the protection of civilians from attacks by Qaddafi’s military.
Fogh Rasmussen said that, in line with the U.N. Security Council mandate, NATO’s operational focus would be “on protecting civilians and civilian-populated areas against the threat of attack.”
While NATO insisted that airstrikes are not meant to give air cover to opposition forces, airstrikes are clearly the only way the rebels bent on overthrowing Qaddafi are going to continue their push to the capital.
NATO’s takeover came the day after a U.S. official told Fox News that President Obama signed a secret presidential finding authorizing covert operations in Libya, though the administration says it still hasn’t decided whether to arm rebel forces there.
The presidential findings establish a framework of legal authorities for covert action. They can authorize specific actions, such as arming the rebels, or establish authorities under which future actions might be taken after permissions are given to undertake them.
Another senior American official, however, says CIA operatives are already on the ground in Libya and are currently gathering intelligence and aiding rebel forces.
The Pentagon has begun drafting plans for arming the rebels if needed, sources told Fox News, but officials caution that no decision has been made because not enough is known yet about the rebels.
On Wednesday, Qaddafi’s ground forces recaptured a strategic oil town and moved within striking distance of another major eastern city, nearly reversing the gains rebels made since international airstrikes began. Rebels pleaded for more help, while a U.S. official said government forces are making themselves harder to target by using civilian “battle wagons” with makeshift armaments instead of tanks.
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