Marham Tornados destroy more tanks, as Libyans change tactics to avoid RAF jets

RAF Marham Tornados destroyed more tanks and armoured vehicles during patrols over Libya yesterday. But Col Gaddafi's forces are changing tactics in a bid to avoid British jets, as they force rebels to retreat.

Tornados launched missiles, destroying three pro-Gaddafi tanks and two armoured vehicles in the Misurata area yesterday.

But news of fresh air strikes came as intelligence warned the dictator's forces had adopted a new tactic in light of the pounding the Tornados have given their tanks and armoured vehicles.

Government forces are making themselves harder to target by using civilian 'battle wagons' - minivans, saloons and SUVs fitted with weapons, said one official, who spoke anonymously in order to discuss sensitive US intelligence on the condition and capabilities of rebel and regime forces.

That makes it far harder for air crews to distinguish pro-Gaddafi units from rebels - who also use flat bed trucks and other converted civilian vehicles.

The dicslosure came as rebels pleaded for more help after Libyan ground forces recaptured a strategic oil town and moved within striking distance of another major eastern city.

Gaddafi's latest advance nearly reversed the gains rebels made since international air strikes began.

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Western leaders were today hinting they may arm the opposition, while negotiations were believed to be going on behind the scenes to find a country to give haven to Libya's leader of more than 40 years.

Gaddafi's regime suffered a blow to its inner circle last night with the apparent defection of foreign minister Musa Kusa, who flew from Tunisia to Farnborough Airport, Hampshire, and announced he was resigning from his post.

Moussa Ibrahim, a Libyan government spokesman in Tripoli, denied the foreign minister had defected, saying he was in London on a 'diplomatic mission'.

Gaddafi's justice and interior ministers resigned shortly after the uprising began last month, but Kusa would be the first high-profile resignation since the international air campaign began.

Air strikes have neutralised Gaddafi's air force and pounded his army, but his ground forces remain far better armed, trained and organised than the opposition.

The shift in momentum back to the government's side is hardening a US view that the poorly-equipped opposition is probably incapable of prevailing without decisive Western intervention - either an all-out US-led military assault on regime forces or a decision to arm the rebels.

In Washington, congressional Republicans and Democrats peppered senior administration officials with questions about how long the US would be involved in Libya, the operation's costs and whether foreign countries would arm the rebels.

Nato is taking over control of the air strikes, which began as a US-led operation. Diplomats said they had given approval for the Nato operation's commander, Canadian general Charles Bouchard, to announce a handover today.

Intelligence experts said the CIA operatives that were sent to Libya would have made contact with the opposition and assessed the rebel forces' strength and needs if US president Barack Obama decided to arm them.

The New York Times reported that the CIA had sent in small groups and that British operatives were directing air strikes.

The rebels had been closing in on the strategic city of Sirte, Gaddafi's home town and a bastion of support for the long-time leader, but under heavy shelling they retreated from Bin Jawwad on Tuesday and from the oil port of Ras Lanouf yesterday.

Gaddafi's forces were shelling Brega, another important oil city east of Ras Lanouf. East of the city in Ajdabiya, where many rebels had regrouped, Col Abdullah Hadi said he expected the loyalists to enter Brega by last night.

'I ask Nato for just one aircraft to push them back. All we need is air cover and we could do this. They should be helping us,' Col Hadi said.

Yesterday's retreat looked like a mad scramble with pick-up trucks loaded with mattresses and boxes driving east at 100mph.

Rebel military spokesman Col Ahmed Bani said the rebels had made a 'tactical retreat' to Ajdabiya and would set up defensive positions there.

Uganda has become the first country to publicly offer Gaddafi refuge, but Gaddafi has shown no public sign he might leave power, vowing to fight until the end.