TRIPOLI - Western warplanes hit Libyan tanks on a fifth night of airstrikes on Thursday but failed to stop Muammar Gaddafi's forces shelling rebel-held towns in the west or dislodge his armour in the east.
Air strikes destroyed government tanks on the outskirts of the rebel-held city of Misrata, but other tanks inside the city were not hit, a resident said.
Gaddafi's tanks had rolled back into Misrata under the cover of darkness and shelled the area near the town's main hospital, resuming their attack, residents and rebels said.
"The situation is very serious," a doctor in the western town said by telephone before the line was cut off.
A resident in rebel-held Zintan, southwest of Tripoli said Gaddafi forces were reinforcing there and rebels forces in the east were still pinned down outside the eastern town of Ajdabiyah after more than three days of trying to recapture it.
The continued fighting has strained an international coalition set up to try to stop Gaddafi's assault on Libyans seeking an end to his rule, with a growing list of countries wary of attacks on ground troops that could kill civilians.
Anti-aircraft fire reverberated above Tripoli during the night and loud explosions were heard, with residents saying smoke was rising from the restive eastern district of Tajoura.
Western forces, having taken out Libyan air defences, moved on to other infrastructure. A Libyan official said fuel storage tanks and a telecommunications tower in Tripoli were among places hit by what state television called "colonialist crusaders".
Libyan officials took Reuters to a Tripoli hospital to see what they said were the charred bodies of 18 military personnel and civilians killed by Western bombing overnight. It was not possible to verify how many were civilians.
The United States says it has successfully established a no-fly zone over the Libyan coast, begun attacking tanks and now wants to hand over to NATO.
But NATO ambassadors have been unable to agree how to assume command of an operation whose final objectives remain unclear and face a fourth day of wrangling on Thursday with diplomats saying the main objections were from Muslim member Turkey.
Seeking to allay fears of a protracted and bloody conflict, France said it could take days or weeks to destroy Gaddafi's military, but would not need months.
"You can't expect us to achieve our objective in just five days," Foreign Minister Alain Jeppe told reporters.
Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said military and civilian compouds in the central Jufrah region and other other targets in Tripoli, Misrata and south of Benghazi in the east, where the rebels have set up an alternative government.
Residents in Misrata said government snipers had continued firing despite the bombing and were targeting the hospital. A rebel spokesman said they had killed 16 people during the day.
U.S. military officials deny any civilians have been killed in airstrikes and a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Thursday found sixty percent of Americans support the U.S. and allied military action to protect Libyans.
But the United States, with its forces already tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan, said it wants to give its lead role in the command of the operation to NATO, though the exact nature of the role of the defence alliance was still under discussion.
"I think this is going to be a matter of days in which you see a movement toward the transition with regard to command and control," a top aide to President Barack Obama told reporters.
Washington, London and Paris agreed on Tuesday that the alliance should play a key operational role, but the assent of all 28 NATO states is needed.
Turkey said it did not want NATO to take responsibility for offensive operations that could cause civilian casualties or be in charge of enforcing a U.N.-mandated no-fly zone while coalition aircraft were simultaneously bombing Libyan forces.
French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said France had destroyed some 10 Libyan armoured vehicles over three days.
The U.N. Security Council resolution he said, "stipulates that the coalition has all means available to protect the civilians. What's threatening the population today is the tanks and artillery," he said in an interview with Le Figaro.
The Libyan government denies its army is conducting any offensive operations and says troops are only defending themselves when they come under attack.
France wants an ad hoc steering group of coalition members, including the Arab League, to exercise political control. All nations are welcome to join, a French presidential source said.
"We need to have a place where all those who want to commit to help Libyans build a future can meet and discuss a political framework," he said. "It's about accompanying the military process with a political one."
The group is due to meet in London next Tuesday.
"We've launched the idea of a contact group and apparently it's a big success," the French source said
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