BENGHAZI, Libya >> French fighter jets hit aircraft and a crossroads military base deep inside Libya on Thursday as the U.S. reduced its combat role in the international operation that is working to thwart Moammar Gadhafi’s forces by land, sea and air.
Libya’s air force has been effectively neutralized, and the government has taken part of its fight to the airwaves. State television aired pictures of bodies it said were victims of airstrikes, but a U.S. intelligence report bolstered rebel claims that Gadhafi’s forces had simply taken bodies from a morgue.
International military support for the rebels is not open-ended: France set a timeframe on the international action at days or weeks — not months.
The possibility of a looming deadline raised pressure on rebel forces. So does a U.N. arms embargo that keeps both Gadhafi and his outgunned opposition from getting more weapons. The rebels were so strapped Thursday that they handed out sneakers — and not guns — at one of their checkpoints.
"We are facing cannons, T-72 and T-92 tanks, so what do we need? We need anti-tank weapons, things like that," said Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, a military spokesman told reporters in Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital. "We are preparing our army now. Before there was no army, from now there is an idea to prepare a new army with new armaments and new morals."
The Gadhafi regime appeared equally hard-pressed, asking international forces to spare its broadcast and communications infrastructure.
"Communications, whether by phones or other uses, are civilian and for the good of the Libyan nation to help us provide information, knowledge and coordinate everyday life. If these civilian targets are hit, it will make life harder for millions of civilians around Libya," Moussa Ibrahim, a government spokesman, told reporters in Tripoli.
Representatives for the regime and rebels were expected to attend an African Union meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Friday, according to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who described it as a part of an effort to reach a cease-fire and political solution.
The U.S. has been trying to give up the lead role in the operation against Gadhafi’s forces, and NATO agreed late Thursday to assume one element of it — control of the no-fly zone.
The U.S.-led coalition will still supervise attacks on targets on the ground, though fewer U.S. planes were used in airstrikes Thursday.
"Nearly all, some 75 percent of the combat air patrol missions in support of the no-fly zone, are now being executed by our coalition partners," Navy Vice Adm. William Gortney, told reporters at the Pentagon. Other countries were handling less than 10 percent of such missions, he said.
The U.S. will continue to fly combat missions as needed, but its role will mainly be in support missions such as refueling allied planes and providing aerial surveillance of Libya, Gortney said.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the international action would last days or possibly weeks, but not months. But he told RTL radio that in addition to protecting civilians, the mission "is also about putting Gadhafi’s opponents, who are fighting for democracy and freedom, in a situation of taking back the advantage."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United Arab Emirates would deploy 12 planes for the coalition effort. Clinton thanked the U.A.E. for becoming the second Arab country after Qatar to send planes.
Qatar is expected to start flying air patrols over Libya by this weekend.
Libyan state television showed blackened and mangled bodies that it said were victims of airstrikes in Tripoli. Rebels have accused Gadhafi’s forces of taking bodies from the morgue and pretending they were civilian casualties.
A U.S. intelligence report on Monday, the day after coalition missiles attacked Gadhafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound in the capital, said that a senior Gadhafi aide was told to take bodies from a morgue and place them at the scene of the bomb damage, to be displayed for visiting journalists. A senior U.S. defense official revealed the contents of the intelligence report on condition of anonymity because it was classified secret.
The French strikes hit a base about 155 miles (250 kilometers) south of the Libyan coastline, as well as a Libyan combat plane that had just landed outside the strategic city of Misrata, France’s military said.
Briefing reporters in Tripoli late Thursday, Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said no Libyan planes have been in the air since the no-fly zone was declared. He said a plane might have been destroyed in an allied attack on an air base.
Kaim said earlier that the "military compound at Juffra" was among the targets hit. Juffra is one of at least two air bases deep in Libya’s interior, on main routes that lead from neighboring countries in the Sahara region that have been suppliers of arms and fighters for the Gadhafi regime.
The town of Sabha, about 385 miles (620 kilometers) south of Tripoli, has another air base and international airport and is a major transit point for the ethnic Tuareg fighters from Mali and Niger who have fought for Gadhafi for the past two decades. Malian officials say hundreds of Tuareg men have left to fight in Libya against the recent uprising.
Abdel-Rahman Barkuli, a Libyan in exile originally from Sabha, said communications with his family there were abruptly cut on Wednesday night and heavy security is preventing residents from moving in or out.
He said residents in Sabha reported airstrikes before dawn: two targeted radars and one targeted a military camp. The airstrikes apparently bypassed a mountain facility that stores ammunition and heavy weaponry for the Gadhafi regime.
"Thank God they didn’t bomb the mountain because it would be a disaster" for the civilians living nearby, he said.
Barkuli said members of two anti-Gadhafi tribes in the city were rounded up early in the protests that began Feb. 15. "No one knows anything about their whereabouts," he said.
U.N. human rights experts said hundreds of people have disappeared in Libya over the past few months, and said there were fears that those who vanished were taken to secret locations to be tortured or executed.
The disappeared were "mainly people who called for demonstrations and who opposed publicly the regime," one of the independent experts, Olivier de Frouville, told The Associated Press.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor, said he was "100 percent" certain that his investigation into attacks on Libyan protesters will lead to crimes against humanity charges against the Gadhafi regime.
NATO sailors, meanwhile, were prepared to board any suspect ships that don’t voluntarily submit to inspections to enforce the U.N. embargo. Vice Adm. Rinaldo Veri, the commander of the NATO naval blockade, said the effort was "closing the main front door" to weapons and mercenaries for Gadhafi.
"If they should find resistance, the use of force is necessary," he said, noting that the Security Council had mandated all means necessary to enforce the embargo.
The U.N. Security Council authorized the embargo and no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians after Gadhafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who demanded that he step down after 42 years in power. But rebel advances have foundered, and the two sides have been at stalemate in key cities such as Misrata and Ajdabiya, the gateway to the opposition’s eastern stronghold.
Ajdabiya has been under siege for more than a week, with the rebels holding the city center but facing relentless shelling from government troops positioned on the outskirts.
Mohammed Ali, 56, who was among people fleeing Thursday, drove out with his family. "They’ve cut everything — the electricity, the water. It’s getting worse and worse inside."
Late Thursday, a rebel fighter, Ahmed al-Zwei, called the AP and claimed that rebel forces were advancing in Ajdabiya, and government forces were negotiating their surrender. His account could not be verified.
Al-Shalchi reported from Tripoli, Libya. Associated Press writers Ben Hubbard and Maggie Michael in Cairo; Jamey Keaten in Paris; Pauline Jelinek and Bob Burns in Washington; Nicole Winfield in Rome; and Martin Vogl in Bamako, Mali, contributed to this report.