The United States is using armed Predator drones in Libya to target Moammar Gadhafi's forces with the approval of President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday.
The unmanned aircraft, already used to target militants along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, will allow for precise attacks against Gadhafi's forces, Gates told a news conference in Washington, D.C.
"He (Obama) has approved the use of armed Predators," Gates said.
The first two Predators, which carry Hellfire missiles and can stay in the air for 24 hours, headed to Libya on Thursday but had to turn back due to bad weather, said General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The U.S. military plans to maintain two patrols of armed Predators above Libya at any given time, permitting better surveillance — and targeting — of Gadhafi's forces as they dig into positions next to civilian areas, Cartwright told the same briefing.
The drones are based in the region but typically flown by remote control by pilots in the United States. The drones for Libya had not been withdrawn from Afghanistan, Gates and Cartwright said.
Gates said Obama continues to be opposed to sending U.S. ground forces into Libya. There were no plans to send U.S. trainers to augment NATO forces already working with rebel forces or to increase the American presence substantially, Gates said.
"There's no wiggle room in that," he said.
Asked why the United States did not want to increase its role in Libya, Gates noted the U.S. military was already stretched thin, with 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, 50,000 troops in Iraq and 18,000 sailors on 19 ships assisting Japan after its devastating earthquake and tsunami last month.
"There was never a lack of clarity about the limits of the U.S. role here," Gates said.
Fighting in Misrata
Libyan government troops pounded the besieged rebel-held city of Misrata, undeterred by Western threats to step up military action against Gadhafi's forces.
Mortar fire killed at least three rebels and wounded 17 in attacks on Tripoli Street early on Thursday, a rebel spokesmen said. Fierce fighting erupted later in the day, with heavy machine gun fire resounding through the streets and the whole area overshadowed by a big plume of black smoke.
Amid streets carpeted with debris, rebels and loyalists are fighting a ferocious battle, often at close quarters. Streets are barricaded with orange dump trucks, parts of cars and even bedframes and tree trunks.
The rebels took over several buildings along parts of the street, enabling them to cut off supplies to a Gadhafi unit and dozens of rooftop snipers who have terrorized civilians and kept them trapped in their homes, said a doctor who identified himself only as Ayman for fear of retaliation.
"This battle cost us lots of blood and martyrs," the doctor said.
Residents celebrated and chanted "God is great" after the snipers left a battle-scarred insurance building that is the highest point in central Misrata, according to a witness who identified himself only as Sohaib.
"Thanks to God, the snipers fled, leaving nothing behind at the insurance building after they were cut off from supplies — ammunition, food and water — for days," added another resident, Abdel Salam.
He called it "a major victory" because the structure gave the pro-Gadhafi forces a commanding view of the city. There were reports of more than 100 Gadhafi forces killed.
In Tripoli, government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim claimed Gadhafi forces control more than 80 percent of the city and the rebels hold "the seaport and the area surrounding it."
Libya's third-largest city, the only rebel stronghold in the west of the country, has been under a punishing siege by Gadhafi's forces for seven weeks. Hundreds have died.
Iman Traina, a Libyan-American who last week fled to Malta from Misrata in a fishing boat with her husband and toddler girl, said her nephew, 25-year-old Ayub Osman, was killed Thursday in a missile strike on Tripoli Street — though it’s not clear if he was one of the three deaths cited in the figures released by the opposition fighters.
Osman had been captured by Gadhafi forces about one month ago, Traina wrote in a Skype chat to msnbc.com.
He was held 13 days before escaping and told his family he witnessed others being tortured. Osman, who was in remission for cancer, was Traina’s first family member to die in the conflict,
"He was insistent on going back (to) the front lines," she wrote, noting his family was "angry at the regime … but proud of Ayub."
Libyan state television said NATO forces had struck the Khallat al-Farjan area of Tripoli, killing seven people and wounding 18 others. NATO said the target was a military command bunker and it had no indication of civilian casualties.
NATO forces later hit the town of Gharyan, south of Tripoli, killing or wounding several people, Libyan TV said. There was no no immediate NATO comment.
Canadian Lt.-Gen. Charles Bouchard, commander of NATO's Libya operations, said civilians should keep away from Gadhafi's forces to avoid being hurt by NATO air attacks. That would allow NATO to strike with greater success, he said.
Another NATO official told Reuters on Thursday: "We want to maintain and increase pressure on the frontline units but the biggest risk in doing that is civilian casualties.
"More and more of Gadhafi's military equipment is being used closer to civilian-populated areas and closer to buildings, which makes targeting obviously difficult."
Misrata's maritime lifeline
In the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in eastern Libya, meanwhile, relief workers and medical teams greeted a passenger ferry carrying about 1,000 people — mostly Libyan civilians and workers from Asia and Africa — out of the besieged city of Misrata, the main rebel holdout in Gadhafi's territory.
Aboard the Ionian Spirit ferry, Libyan civilians and migrants workers packed the decks, hallways and every other available space. In the ship's Panorama Bar, evacuees tossed mattresses onto the wooden dance floor. Women slipped behind a curtain to change.
The injured were brought to the lower level of the ship, where an 11-member medical team set up a makeshift intensive care unit.
Jeremy Haslam, a coordinator from the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration, said the boat has more than 1,000 evacuees including 239 Libyan civilians and 586 migrants from Niger and others from Africa and Asia
He said some Libyans tried to flee Misrata aboard a tug boat, but were turned away because the vessel was overcrowded. Some managed to get aboard the ferry.
"We are carrying more than we are supposed to but it's better than letting these people leave on a tugboat," said Haslam.
The number of people seeking to flee Misrata has surged as Libyan forces expand their shelling to areas once considered relatively safe havens from attacks.
"Our neighborhood became a war zone so we had to get out," said Faiza Stayta, who made it aboard the ferry with her husband and two children. "All the firing is random. You hear a rocket and how have no idea if it will come down on your house."
The vessel carried the bodies of British photojournalist Tim Hetherington, co-director of Oscar-nominated war documentary "Restrepo," and American photographer Chris Hondros, who were killed when a group they were in came under mortar fire.PhotoBlog: The work of journalists killed in Libya
Dr. Aiman, a doctor in Misrata who declined to give his last name out of fear for his safety, wrote to msnbc.com about the two surviving journalists from the rocket-propelled grenade attack on Wednesday that killed Hetherington and Hondros.
"I have just talk(ed) with Guy Martin and he is stable," he wrote to msnbc.com in a Skype chat. "I think he will get bet(t)er."
Aiman wrote that Martin needed more treatment: "I think that he need to stay her(e) unless we could transfer him in a safe mobile hospital or under close medical observation."
Gadhafi's government repeated its call for a ceasefire. "Why don't they send us negotiators and decide ... a starting date for the ceasefire and observe whether we keep our promise or not?" a spokesman said. "I'm asking the international community to come and test what we say."
It is unclear how NATO-led forces plan to break the deadlock on the ground after the United States and several European allies declined last week to join ground strikes. Only the United States possesses low-flying attack aircraft of the types analysts say would be most effective in Libya.
"The problem here is that there is a mismatch between the real objective — regime change — and the forces that are being dedicated to it," said Stratfor analyst Marko Papic.
A rebel spokesman said there was also fighting near Libya's western border with Tunisia.
"Clashes are currently occurring in Nalut and have been going on since Monday. The Gadhafi forces are using Grad missiles and mortar rounds to attack Nalut. It's not an even battle. The rebels are not well-armed."Slideshow: Conflict in Libya (on this page)
Witnesses said rebels appeared to have taken control of the Libyan side of a border crossing near the southern Tunisian town of Dehiba, in a remote region where they have been fighting government forces. Some government troops had turned themselves over to the Tunisian military.
The Libyan state news agency said on Thursday NATO had intercepted a Libyan oil tanker and had used "violence and terrorism against its crew" in a "barbaric piracy operation."
Evidence surfaced on Wednesday that Gadhafi's government is circumventing U.N. sanctions to import gasoline to western Libya using intermediaries who transfer the fuel between ships in Tunisia, a source told Reuters.
Top stories: Turmoil in the Middle East
Advisers on the ground
British Prime Minister David Cameron insisted Thursday that NATO isn't edging toward the deployment of ground troops in Libya, despite the decision by several European nations to send military staff to assist rebel forces.
Italy, France and Britain are sending experienced combat advisers to help train and organize Libya's opposition forces as they struggle to loosen Moammar Gadhafi's grip on power.
"The U.N. Security Council does limit us. We're not allowed, rightly, to have an invading army, or an occupying army," Cameron told BBC Scotland radio. "That's not what we want, that's not what the Libyans want, that's not what the world wants."
Msnbc.com's Miranda Leitsinger, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.