Tripoli, Libya: Tiny Qatar became the first Arab country to fly combat missions over Libya on Friday after NATO agreed to take command of the no-fly zone part of air operations against Moammar Gadhafi`s regime.
French and British jets struck Libyan military targets around a besieged eastern city, as talks in the Ethiopian capital to find a way out of the crisis produced a statement from the Libyan government delegation saying his country was ready to talk with rebels and accept political reform, possibly including elections.
It not immediately unclear what was behind the offer from Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi, who also blamed violence in Libya on "extremists" and foreign intervention. Rebels, who were not at the talks, say they will not negotiate with Gadhafi.
The Qatari fighter jet flew its first sortie alongside a French jet on Friday and the United Arab Emirates pledged 12 warplanes to the effort to thwart Moammar Gadhafi. The international effort has no other countries from the Arab League, a 22-member group that was among the driving forces behind the UN Security Council decision to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.
The United States has provided millions of dollars in equipment to many of the league`s countries, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
"Having our first Arab nation join and start flying with us emphasizes that the world wants the innocent Libyan people protected from the atrocities perpetrated by pro-regime forces," US Air Forces Africa Commander Maj Gen Margaret Woodward said.
Canadian Lt Gen Charles Bouchard was designated to lead what the country`s defense minister described as "yet to be fully defined NATO operations."
The international coalition confronting Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has agreed to put NATO in charge of enforcing the no-fly zone, but was still hammering out a deal to relieve US forces of command of all military operations in the country.
President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have both said that American command of the operations would last only a few days.
British and French warplanes, meanwhile, hit near the town of Ajdabiya, destroying an artillery battery and armored vehicles. Ajdabiya and the western city of Misrata, in particular, have suffered because the rebels lack the heavy weapons to life the siege from Gadhafi`s forces.
The US launched 15 more cruise missiles from the Mediterranean Sea, targeting garrisons near Tripoli, the capital, a military official said Friday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
Ajdabiya has been under siege for more than a week, with the rebels holding the city center under shelling from government troops positioned on the outskirts. Rebels are haphazardly manning checkpoints, but are forced to scatter under shelling several times each day.
"Libyan airspace is under control, and we proved it yesterday, because a Libyan plane in the hands of pro-Gadhafi forces, which had just taken off from Misrata in order to bomb Misrata, was destroyed by a French Rafale," Adm. Edouard Guillaud said on France-Info radio.
Rida al-Montasser, an activist from Misrata, said Gadhafi forces fired mortars and RPGs from rooftops along a main street, hitting a market and a residential building. He said that rebels are trying to chase the snipers from rooftops, rounded up some 30 of the snipers so far and still searching for more.
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a top African Union official called for a transition period in Libya that would lead to democratic elections, a rare rebuke from African leaders who appear to be pushing for political reforms that could lead Gadhafi`s ouster.
A Libyan government delegation met in Ethiopia with five African heads of state who plan to develop a road map to encourage political reform in the North African country. Rebel leaders indicated that they had no representatives at the talks.
African Union commission chairman Jean Ping said in an opening speech that the AU favors an inclusive transitional period that would lead to democratic elections.
"We are convinced, at the African Union level, that there is a sufficient basis for reaching a consensus and making a valuable contribution to finding a lasting solution in Libya," he said.
The statement calling for a transition toward elections is the strongest Libya-related statement to come out of the AU since the Libya crisis began, and could be seen as a strong rebuke to a leader who has long been well regarded by the continental body.
Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the opposition rebels, said he has heard nothing about the meetings and would not have spoken with Gadhafi representatives in any event.
"The position of the national council has been clear from the beginning — no negotiations," he said. "All he has to do is stop bombing and leave the country," Gheriani said, referring to Gadhafi.
The Libyan delegation to the meeting said they were ready to implement a "road map" envisioned by the African Union that would meet "the aspirations of the Libyan people in a peaceful and democratic manner." But the AU did not immediately release a statement, so there were no details on the plan.