TRIPOLI (Reuters/AFP) Almost 100 civilians have been killed in coalition raids launched on forces of Libyan leader Moamer Gaddafi nearly a week ago, a government spokesman said Thursday, giving a provisional toll.
I cant give the latest numbers but we are getting close to 100 for sure, Mussa Ibrahim told reporters who asked for an overall death toll since coalition operations were launched Saturday.
Yes, they are civilians, he added in reply to a question on the identities of those killed.
He said the Libyan regime expects the Western coalition to pound telecommunications centres and the state radio station on Thursday evening.
A US general in charge said on Thursday that coalition forces imposing a no-fly zone on Libya cannot be sure there have been no civilian deaths from bombings but are trying to be very precise.
General Carter Ham, head of US Africa Command, also said that Libya's air defence sites essentially no longer exist as a result of the air strikes and that coalition forces are now targeting Libyan troops attacking civilians.
I cannot be sure there have been no civilian casualties.
We are being very, very precise and discriminating in our targeting, Ham told reporters at a briefing at Sigonella air base on the island of Sicily off southern Italy.
There have been more instances than I can think of in the conduct of this campaign where our pilots have made the correct decision to not attack a legitimate military target for concern of the civilian casualties, he added.
Meanwhile, Russias Dmitry Medvedev told US President Barack Obama on Thursday of the need to avoid civilian casualties in the international bombing campaign in Libya, the Kremlin said.
The Kremlin said the Russian president called Obama to discuss the Libyan campaign and other regional issues.
The Russian president especially noted the need to avoid casualties among the civilian population and the priority of achieving goals set by UN Security Council Resolution 1973, the Kremlin statement said.
European Union leaders opened a two-day summit Thursday divided over military action in Libya and a NATO role in the campaign, while facing a fresh euro crisis over financial woes in Portugal.
Western warplanes hit military targets deep inside Libya on Thursday but failed to stop Muammar Gaddafis forces shelling rebel-held towns in the west or dislodge his armour in the east.
Fighting also raged in rebel-held Misrata, where a medic said at least 109 people have been killed and more than 1,300 wounded in a week of assaults by Gaddafis forces.
Attacks by Gaddafi forces since last Friday have killed 109 people and wounded 1,300 others, 81 of whom are in serious condition, said the doctor working in the state hospital in Misrata, 214 kilometres east of Tripoli.
Air strikes destroyed government tanks on the outskirts of rebel-held Misrata, but other tanks inside the city were not hit, a resident said, underling the difficulty of the UN backed military mission to protect Libyans from Muammar Gaddafi.
Gaddafis tanks rolled back into Misrata under the cover of darkness and shelled the area near the hospital, which was also under fire from government snipers, residents and rebels said.
The situation is very serious, a doctor in the western town said by telephone before the line was cut off.
The continued fighting has strained an international coalition set up to try to stop Gaddafis 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.
Nato members are still trying to resolve differences over the command and aims of the international operation in Libya.
Western forces, having taken out Libyan air defences, moved deeper into Libya and on to other strategic infrastructure.
A British submarine launched a fresh salvo of Tomahawk missiles at Libyan air defence systems, the defence ministry said Thursday.
The UK launched guided Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles from a Trafalgar Class submarine at air defence targets as part of the coalition plan to enforce the resolution, the spokesman for the chief of defence staff said in a statement.
It did not give further details about the targets or the result of the strikes.
France said it had hit an air base in central Libya early on Thursday, the fifth night of air strikes by Western powers on Gaddafis military and al Arabiya television said planes struck Sabha, a Gaddafi stronghold in southern Libya, on Thursday.
A Libyan official said fuel storage tanks and a telecommunications tower in Tripoli were among places hit by what state television called colonialist crusaders.
A target in the Tajoura district which a resident said was a military area was also hit twice on Thursday.
Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said strikes had hit military and civilian compounds in the central Jufrah region and other targets in Tripoli, Misrata and south of Benghazi in the east, home to an emerging alternative government.
Libyan officials took Reuters journalists to a Tripoli hospital to see 18 male corpses, some charred beyond recognition, saying they were military personnel and civilians killed by Western bombing overnight.
It was the first time foreign reporters had been shown alleged victims of the airstrikes and it was not possible to verify how many were civilians.
Libya says dozens have been killed; Western forces deny any have been killed in the strikes.
The United States says it has successfully established a no-fly zone over the Libyan coast, begun attacking tanks and now wants to hand leadership of the mission to Nato.
But Natos 28 members 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 the main objections from Turkey.
Seeking to allay fears of a protracted and bloody conflict, France said it could take days or weeks to destroy Gaddafis military, but would not need months.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague called for Nato to take over as soon as possible.
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 UN-mandated no-fly zone while coalition aircraft were simultaneously bombing Libyan forces.
French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said the UN resolution, stipulates that the coalition has all means available to protect the civilians.
Whats threatening the population today is the tanks and artillery.
The Libyan government denies its army is conducting any offensive operations and says troops are only defending themselves when they come under attack.
French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said on Monday that President Nicolas Sarkozy had taken the lead of a crusade to mobilise the UN Security Council, the Arab League and the African Union to prevent massacres in Libya.
Speaking to Turkish journalists on Wednesday, Turkish President Abdullah Gul aired suspicion that some coalition governments had ulterior motives and that Libya could be looted as Iraq had been.
Meanwhile, rebels battled on to the eastern oil town of Ajdabiya Thursday as plans firmed for NATO to take over coalition operations after Tripoli came under attack for a sixth day and death tolls mounted.
France promised to continue air raids for as long as necessary, and Italy offered to increase its participation in the coalition operation.
Military officials announced French warplanes had struck a Libyan base overnight and blasts and anti-aircraft fire rattled the Libyan capital before dawn.
NATO will take command of the international coalitions military operations in Libya on Monday or Tuesday, a diplomat said.
And Turkeys parliament approved sending a naval force off Libya as the Islamist-rooted government moved reluctantly to join the military action despite anger at the Western-led air raids.
French warplanes attacked an air base 250 kilometres inland from the Mediterranean coast overnight, military officials said Thursday at a news conference.
Italy could offer warships and more planes for operations in Libya in addition to four Tornado bombers and four F-16 fighter jets it has already deployed, the defence minister said.
Rebels were fighting to retake Ajdabiya from troops loyal to Moamer Gaddafi, an AFP journalist witnessed.
Shelling and gunfire could be heard at a rebel outpost nine kilometres from the oil city where hundreds of fighters amassed in the morning before marching forward.
They are shooting at us with tanks, artillery and Grad missiles, said Mohammed, a rebel returning from the frontline.
We have nothing but light weapons whereas they have heavy ones.
The rebels, whose weapons range from Kalashnikov assault rifles to knives, are trying to enter the city from several fronts and managed to get within one kilometre of Ajdabiyas eastern entrance, said Mohammed.
Tanks guarded the northern and western entrances.
Heavy fighting on Wednesday forced residents to flee en masse.
Fresh air raids on Thursday shook Tajura, a residential neighbourhood 32 kilometres east of the capital, with coalition forces targeting Libyan military bases, according to witnesses.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Thursday told the Security Council that Libyan government troops are disregarding a UN ceasefire order despite heavy bombing of Moamer Kadhafis forces by an international coalition.

This news was published in The Nation newspaper. Read complete newspaper of 25-Mar-2011 here.