|NATO has been carrying out air strikes on Libya since Gaddafi used force to put down public revolt [AFP]
The head of the NATO military alliance says military and political pressure have weakened Muammar Gaddafi's hold on power in Libya and will eventually topple him.
"We have significantly degraded Gaddafi's war machine. And now we see results, the opposition has gained ground," NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen told a news conference in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, on Thursday.
"I am confident that combination of strong military pressure and increased political pressure and support for the opposition will eventually lead to the collapse of the regime."
Rasmussen’s comments were echoed by US president Barack Obama.
"Time is working against Gaddafi. He does not have control over his country. The opposition has organised a legitimate and credible interim council," Obama said in Washington.
"When Gaddafi inevitably leaves or is forced from power, decades of provocation will come to an end and the transition to a democratic Libya can proceed," he said, defending his decision to take military action against the Libyan leader's government.
But Libyan government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim criticised the US president's remarks, saying "Obama is still delusional".
"He believes the lies that his own government and media spread around the world ... It's not Obama who decides whether Muammar Gaddafi leaves Libya or not. It's the Libyan people."
NATO aircraft sank eight warships belonging to Gaddafi's forces in overnight attacks, the alliance said on Friday.
The ships were sunk in co-ordinated attacks on the ports of Tripoli, Al Khums and Sirte, an alliance statement said.
"Given the escalating use of naval assets, NATO had no choice but to take decisive action to protect the civilian population of Libya and NATO forces at sea," Rear-Admiral Russell Harding, deputy commander of the NATO mission in Libya, said in the statement.
NATO, acting under a UN mandate, has been carrying out air strikes on the oil producer since Gaddafi used force to put down a revolt inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world.
In some of the latest strikes, NATO hit Gaddafi's forces around 15 km (9 miles) east of the rebel-held town of Zintan in the Western Mountains region. The town and the port city of Misrata have seen some of the heaviest fighting in recent weeks.
A Reuters reporter in Zintan said NATO strikes on a government weapons depot outside the city sent plumes of smoke into the sky. Government shelling of rebel positions near the town killed at least one rebel and wounded three, a medical official in the town said.
NATO bombs struck Tripoli, Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte and Zlitan east of the capital, state TV said late on Thursday.
Officials later took journalists to Tripoli port where a small ship which they said had been hit by NATO spewed smoke and flames.
Meanwhile, Libya's government denied persistent rumours that Gaddafi's wife, daughter and a top oil official had left the country.
Libyan officials have produced no evidence of the whereabouts of the three, raising questions about Gaddafi's
ability to hold together his entourage in the face of a widespread rebellion and NATO bombing.
On Wednesday, a Tunisian security source and a Libyan opposition source with links to the ruling circle said Gaddafi's wife Safia and daughter Aisha were staying on the Tunisian island of Djerba, near the border with Libya.
Libyan rebel officials, as well as official sources in Tunisia, have also told Reuters that Shokri Ghanem, a former prime minister who runs Libya's oil industry, had left Libya via Tunisia, though it was unclear where he had gone.
Khaled Kaim, Libya's deputy foreign minister and one of the main government spokesmen, told Reuters in Tripoli: "Shokri Ghanem is in his position, at work. If he's out of the country, he'll be coming back.
"As for the family of the leader, they're still here in Libya. Where else would they be?"
Meanwhile, Libyan state TV showed footage of Gaddafi meeting a Libyan politician in Tripoli, who government spokesman Ibrahim said had been part of a delegation that met Russian officials in Moscow this week to explore possibilities for a ceasefire.
The footage zoomed in on a TV screen in the room that showed Thursday's date displayed in the corner. The leader wore a brown robe with a hat and sunglasses.
Clear military objectives
Rasmussen said he had no information that Gaddafi's wife, daughter and oil chief had fled.
Gaddafi has survived previous high-level defections, but analysts say there are signs of a gradual bleeding of support, especially as NATO's intensifies its air strikes and shortages make life harder even for officials.
"There are three clear military objectives for our operation," NATO's Rasmussen told reporters.
"Firstly, a complete end to all attacks against civilians. Secondly, withdrawal of Gaddafi's military forces and paramilitary forces to their bases. And thirdly, immediate and unhindered humanitarian access to people in need in Libya.
"We will continue our operation until these objectives are fulfilled," he vowed.
Rasmussen stressed the NATO mission was restricted to enforcing the UN-mandated no-fly zone and that there were no plans for alliance troops to set foot on Libyan soil.
Libyan officials, however, have described the NATO intervention as an act of colonial aggression aimed at grabbing Libya's oil.
On the ground, opposition rebels control eastern Libya and pockets in the West, but the conflict has reached stalemate in military terms, with rebel attempts to advance on Tripoli, Gaddafi's stronghold, stalled.
That has left Western governments - under pressure from sceptical publics to deliver a decisive outcome - counting on Gaddafi's administration collapsing from within.
The last few days have also seen a flurry of diplomatic activity focusing on a possible ceasefire deal, with pro-Gaddafi officials travelling to Moscow for talks and UN envoys trying to broker an agreement.