NEAR AJDABIYA, Libya – Libyan forces hammered rebel cities on Wednesday with tank fire forcing civilians to flee as a top British officer said Moamer Kadhafi's air force had been almost obliterated.
At the end of a day of bitter fighting in key rebel strongholds, forces loyal to Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi pounded a hospital in the western city of Misrata, a rebel spokesman said.
Witnesses also reported a huge blast shaking a military base in the Tajura district 32 kilometres (some 20 miles) east of Tripoli, while sporadic anti-aircraft fire was also heard in the capital.
The official Jana news agency later reported Tajura had been targeted twice on Wednesday.
An armada of NATO warships patrolled Libya's coast to enforce an arms embargo against Kadhafi, but fresh efforts to give the alliance command of military operations collapsed after days of sometimes acrimonious debate.
A NATO diplomat said the 28-nation alliance will try again on Thursday to reach a decision on whether NATO should take charge of an operation that was launched on Saturday by Britain, France and the United States.
British Air Vice Marshal Greg Bagwell said Libya's air force has been almost totally obliterated by the air strikes and "no longer exists as a fighting force."
Speaking from an airbase in southern Italy, from which RAF warplanes are operating, Bagwell said Libyan ground forces were also being attacked when they threaten civilians.
The US military also said Kadhafi ground troops threatening rebel-held cities are now being targeted by coalition air strikes.
"We are putting pressure on Kadhafi's ground forces that are threatening cities," Rear Admiral Gerard Hueber, US chief of staff for the Libya mission, said. Asked by reporters if that meant air strikes, he said: "Yes."
French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said that "the air exclusion zone has become a reality."
"The French side has taken out a dozen armoured vehicles in three days," he told Le Figaro newspaper in an interview to be published on Thursday.
"This is decisive as we have practically not seen any tank concentrations since the strikes."
Canadian warplanes bombed their first target in Libya overnight, destroying a munitions depot in the rebel-held city of Misrata, Libya's third city 214 kilometres (132 miles) east of Tripoli, military officials said on Wednesday.
"Last night's mission resulted in the destruction of a munitions depot in northern Libya," Assistant Chief of the Air Staff Major-General Tom Lawson said.
Residents fleeing Ajdabiya, a strategic eastern town south of rebel capital Benghazi, described shelling, gunfire and burning houses, while an AFP reporter said a pall of smoke hung over the town and intermittent explosions were heard.
A man driving a car with his panicked family on the coast road north of the city told AFP they were too scared to stay. "We left because of the fighting. We were very scared; we cannot stay."
Hamed al-Qabaili, also fleeing Ajdabiya, said Kadhafi forces "are firing Grad missiles at the houses," while fellow passenger Muftah al-Sheikh said that "very few people" stayed behind. "There is no electricity and no gas."
Late on Wednesday Kadhafi forces using tanks pounded the only hospital in Misrata, which has been besieged by regime loyalists for weeks, a witness and a rebel spokesman said.
"The situation here is very bad and very serious. The tanks are shelling the hospital and houses," said the spokesman. On Tuesday 17 people were killed by snipers and shelling in Misrata, a doctor said.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon again urged all sides in Libya to cease fire as the Security Council prepared to meet on Thursday, a week after clearing the way for action against Kadhafi.
"All those who violate international humanitarian and human rights law will be held fully accountable," Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky said, mentioning attacks on Misrata and Zintan, also in the west.
Coalition forces are acting under UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorising "all necessary means" to protect civilians fighting to topple Kadhafi, including enforcing a no-fly zone.
In Berlin, coalition spokeswoman Beverly Mock reported 97 sorties across Libya in the 24 hours ending at 1200 GMT on Wednesday, with air strikes targeting tanks, anti-aircraft batteries and "command centres."
Since the start of the operation on Saturday, the US and British navies had fired 162 Tomahawk cruise missiles -- 112 on Saturday alone.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said in Cairo that there was no "timeline" for the Libya operation.
"The no-fly zone is not time limited by the Security Council resolution. So I think that there is no current timeline in terms of when it might end," he said.
Gates said Washington still expected to hand over command of the operation within a "few days" to other countries.
In Paris, an envoy from the rebels' transitional council said their objective was a regime that would be "democratic and secular."
Mansour Saif al-Nasr also predicted that Kadhafi would fall quickly, paving the way for society to be rebuilt. "The Libyan people are a moderate people, and the state will not be led by clerics."
The interim council has 31 members, but the identities of only eight have been revealed since most still live in zones held by Kadhafi loyalists.
"They are mainly lawyers and professors. All regions of Libya are represented, and there are members from all the tribes," including Kadhafi's, Nasr said on Tuesday.
NATO said warships and aircraft began patrolling the Libyan coast to enforce the arms embargo "as part of Operation Unified Protector."
Six nations agreed to contribute up to 16 vessels to prevent Kadhafi from bringing in weapons from the Mediterranean, with Turkey offering five warships and a submarine despite its reservations about the military action.
But the Western alliance still bickered on the overall command.
France insisted on a committee of coalition countries so as not to alienate Arab states, while Italy, which offers air bases, demanded a single command under NATO.
Meanwhile US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington expects "more announcements" of Arab participation in the the campaign in the coming days.
Qatar has deployed Mirage fighters, the only Arab state so far to commit military assets to the coalition. British Prime Minister David Cameron said Kuwait and Jordan would provide a logistical contribution.
Oil prices rose for the third straight day on Wednesday amid more signs of rising demand and continued turmoil in crude exporter Libya.
West Texas Intermediate for April delivery gained 78 cents from Tuesday to $105.75 in New York, the highest close in two years. In London, the main Brent North Sea contract added 15 cents to $115.55.
The European Union, meanwhile, slapped a fourth wave of sanctions on the Libyan regime, including an assets freeze on the National Oil Corporation and five of its subsidiaries.
Meanwhile Agence France-Presse employees David Clark and Roberto Schmidt who were held by Kadhafi's forces along with Getty photographer Joe Raedle since Saturday were released in Tripoli early Wednesday.