Updated 11:45 p.m. set
The coalition turned their sites on Sirte today as rebel forces moved carefully towards what could become a major engagement with Moammar Gadhafi's forces in the city where he was born.
Coalition jets were seen and about a dozen blasts could be heard by reporters visiting Sirte,located less than 300 miles from Tripoli The Washington Post reported. Coalition strikes and anti-aircraft fire were also heard around Tripoli today.
The rag-tag rebel force and their column of person vehicles and pickup trucks with machine guns and rocket launchers mounted in the back was marching westward down the coastal highway after taking a string of town since they launched the offensive late last week.
Most of the territory had been in the hands of the rebels previously, but Sirte is nerw territory that has remained in Gadhafi's grip. His forces are believed to have substancial numbers in Sirte. The Wall Street Journal cited a person close to the Libyan military command who said loyalist reinforcements had been sent to Sirt from the southern towns of Sebha, Waddan and Al-Jufra.
Updated 5:45 p.m.
Statement today by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Libya:
"NATO Allies have decided to take on the whole military operation in Libya under the United Nations Security Council Resolution. Our goal is to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack from the Gaddafi regime. NATO will implement all aspects of the UN Resolution. Nothing more, nothing less.
"This is a very significant step, which proves NATO's capability to take decisive action.
In the past week, we have put together a complete package of operations in support of the United Nations Resolution by sea and by air. We are already enforcing the arms embargo and the No Fly Zone, and with today's decision we are going beyond. We will be acting in close coordination with our international and regional partners to protect the people of Libya.
We have directed NATO's top operational Commander to begin executing this operation with immediate effect."
Libyan rebels stormed westward again today, re-capturing the oil town Ras Lanuf and nearby Bin Jawad, apparently girding for a showdown in coming days with limping loyalist forces in the birthplace of Moammar Gadhafi: Sirte.
The rebel charge came as NATO agreed to take over the entire mission over Libya, Reuters reports.
U.S., French and British warplanes cleared the road for the fast-moving offensive, taking out Gadhafi's armor and troops, leveling the playing field for the outgunned rebels (Defense Secretary Robert Gates charged that Gadhafi is moving bodies that Libyan forces have killed to bombed out coalition target sites).
The rebels claim they will begin shipping oil as early as this week after re-taking the oil centers they pulled out of more than a week ago.
BBC's Ben Brown in Ras Lanuf reports, "It's been a remarkable day for the rebels. After seizing Ajdabiya, they have advanced westwards alsong the coastal highway at breakneck speed. Town after town as fallen to them - Brega, Ugayla, Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad. It has been hard at times for us to keep up with them. The rebels are in a state of high excitement, exhilarated."
Brown added, "They can hardly believe the progress they have made... But the truth is that they never would have made this breakthrough if it had not been for the devastating coalition air strikes outside Ajdabiya on Thursday and Friday. They destroyed dozens of Col Gaddafi's tanks, armored vehicles and artillery pieces."
Taking Sirte, to the west, may be different story, however.
"The rebels claim that on Monday they could be in Sirte - Col Gaddafi's birthplace and heartland. Yet, the closer they advance towards Tripoli, the more of a fight the regime is likely to put up. Today may have been the easy part," Brown reported.