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This article was published 31/3/2011 (3730 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
BRUSSELS, Belgium -- NATO made it clear Thursday that rebel forces in Libya are not impervious to bombardment if they attack civilians.
Canadian Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, commander of the NATO operation that assumed control of Libyan airspace on Thursday, said anyone attacking civilians "would be ill-advised to continue such activities. I recommend that you cease such activities."
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said "This applies to both sides, whoever targets (civilians) risks becoming a target. We will apply the mandate across the board."
But Lungescu emphasized that the issue was hypothetical because the U.N. resolution mandating NATO's intervention had been triggered by the systematic attacks of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's security forces against civilians, and not by any action of the rebels.
NATO said the allies had supplied a total of 205 aircraft and 21 navy vessels for the operation, which includes patrolling the seas off Libya to prevent the delivery of weapons to the warring sides.
The U.S. contributed 90 aircraft and one warship. Among the 14 nations listed, France provided 33 aircraft and one ship, and Britain 17 planes and two warships.
The hand-over from the U.S., which had been leading the impromptu group of countries bombing forces loyal to Gadhafi, "has been seamless with no gaps in the effort," Bouchard told journalists from his headquarters in Naples, Italy.
His remarks were transmitted by video link to other journalists in Brussels.
NATO aircraft had already flown more than 90 sorties since the alliance took over command at 0600 GMT (2 a.m. EDT), Bouchard said.
Bouchard also said NATO would investigate a claim by the Vatican's envoy in Libya that airstrikes in Tripoli during the night had killed 40 civilians -- though he noted that the alleged incident was said to have taken place before NATO took command.
NATO's assumption of command comes at a sensitive moment in the war between the rebels and loyalist forces. Gadhafi's ground troops have nearly reversed the gains rebels made since the international airstrikes began. The battlefield setbacks have led to increased calls for the international community to supply weapons to the lightly armed rebels.
Speaking in Stockholm, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Thursday the alliance doesn't support U.S. and British suggestions that the U.N. mandate for the international military operation in Libya allows arming rebels.
In Brussels, NATO's top officer, Italian Adm. Giampaolo Di Paola, declined repeatedly to say whether the alliance would intercept any ship carrying weapons to the rebels, calling the question hypothetical.
Moammar Gadhafi struck a defiant stance Thursday after two high-profile defections from his regime, saying the Western leaders who have decimated his military with airstrikes should resign immediately.
The rebels said they were undaunted, taking heart from the departures in Gadhafi's inner circle.
"We believe that the regime is crumbling from within," opposition spokesman Mustafa Gheriani said in Benghazi, the rebels' de facto capital. He compared Gadhafi to a wounded animal.
"An injured wolf is much more dangerous than a healthy wolf. But we hope the defections continue and I think he'll find himself with no one around him," Gheriani said.
-- The Associated Press