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Forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi have dug in within cities where the presence of civilians effectively shields them from air strikes, a Pentagon official admitted Thursday.

“We are not attacking with tactical aircraft forces inside of a city,” said Vice Adm. William Gortney, director of the Joint Staff. “Nothing prevents us in the rules of engagement from doing that. We're doing that because we’re fairly confident we couldn’t meet our collateral damage concerns.”

Fighting has focused around the cities of Misrata, Ajdibiyah and Zintan, Gortney said. Reports from Misrata in particular have portrayed a growing humanitarian crisis in a city without electricity or running water.

Coalition airstrikes are instead targeting forces outside the cities in an attempt to cut off and wear down the troops hunkered down in the cities.

“If you can work on their supply lines, their logistics capability — cut them off — they’re not going to be able to sustain their activities inside the city,” he said.

Although the U.S.-led coalition is not communicating with the Libyan opposition forces, it’s using every means at its disposal to tell Gadhafi loyalists to stop fighting or face the consequences.

“Our message to the regime troops is simple,” Gortney said. “Stop fighting, stop killing your own people, stop obeying the orders of Colonel Gadhafi. To the degree that you defy these demands, we will continue to hit you.”

Other countries in the coalition are assuming an increasing share of the load in maintaining the no-fly zone, which now stretches from coast to coast and deep into Libya, Gortney said.

While the U.S. is conducting most of the strikes against ground forces, he said, allies have taken over patrolling the skies for Libyan aircraft. A French fighter on Thursday reportedly destroyed a Libyan plane in the process of landing near Misrata.

NATO ministers were in talks late Thursday on the possibility of NATO assuming leadership of the coalition. Gortney said the U.S. would be ready to make the transition when the call came.

“We are working very hard on the military side to be able to turn over the command of this operation as early as this weekend,” he said. “This is a complicated process and to some extent it is being done on the fly.”

carrollc@stripes.osd.mil

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