TRIPOLI/BRUSSELS NATO's bombing campaign in Libya has crippled the government's ability to attack rebels fighting to topple Muammar Gaddafi and effectively forced the leader into hiding, the alliance said on Friday.
NATO took command of a U.N.-authorized mission nearly two months ago to stop Gaddafi's forces attacking civilians, and Western governments including the United States, Britain and France are under pressure to show results.
Ambassadors of the 28 NATO states who met this week are confident the mission is making "steady and tangible progress," said NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero, adding that the campaign had relieved pressure on rebel-held towns.
"NATO nations and partners agree we have taken the initiative. We have the momentum," she told a briefing in Brussels.
"Our mission remains unchanged -- we will prevent attacks and threats against civilians until the threat is removed. The evidence shows we are doing just that," she said, adding that NATO had helped relieve the siege on the port city of Misrata.
Three months into an uprising against Gaddafi's four-decade rule, rebels control the east and pockets in the west including Misrata. The conflict has reached a stalemate as rebel attempts to advance on Tripoli have stalled.
Tripoli calls the rebels criminals and al Qaeda militants and says NATO's bombing is armed aggression by Western nations bent on grabbing Libya's oil.
Libyan state television showed footage on Thursday of Gaddafi. But NATO military spokesman Wing Commander Mike Bracken said in Brussels that strikes on command-and-control centers Tripoli had limited Gaddafi's ability control his forces.
"It has also constrained his freedom of movement." Bracken said. "Effectively he has gone into hiding."
In a sign of international discord over the campaign, Russia stepped up its criticism of NATO. A foreign ministry statement accused NATO of killing civilians and destroying infrastructure.
Rebels and government forces battled in an area called Ryna around 10 km (6 miles) east of Zintan, a town in the contested Western Mountains region.
A Reuters reporter in the center of Zintan heard artillery rounds and anti-aircraft gunfire. A rebel spokesman in the town, Juma Ibrahim, said it appeared pro-government forces were trying to advance and were firing tank rounds and heavy guns.
MISSILES HIT LIBYAN SHIPS
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Thursday that Gaddafi's downfall was inevitable. The administration says it will not put U.S. soldiers on the ground in Libya.
Instead, the Pentagon said it has shipped the rebels military food rations and will soon provide other forms of non-lethal aid including uniforms, tents and protective vests.
In an escalation of the campaign, NATO said it sank eight Libyan warships and intercepted the oil tanker Jupiter, saying it believed the fuel would be used for military purposes.
Libyan officials took journalists late on Thursday to Tripoli's port, where a small ship spewed smoke and flames. Missiles hit six boats, said port general manager Mohammad Ahmad Rashed. Five were coastguard vessels and one was a navy ship but all had been under repair since before the fighting began.
By targeting shipping, NATO is enforcing a blockade against civilians, Rashed said. Journalists taken back to the port on Friday saw three badly damaged vessels, one partly submerged.
"We had been told if those ships moved they would be destroyed so they were docked here," said Amran al-Ferjani, chief of the Libyan coastguard.
A series of apparent high-level defections suggest Gaddafi is struggling to hold his inner circle together.
Tripoli says its top oil official, Shokri Ghanem, is on an official visit to Europe but rebel and Tunisian sources say he has defected and his name was on a list for a flight to Vienna.
(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Matt Robinson in Zintan, Phil Stewart and David Alexander in Washington, Alissa de Carbonnel and Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Isabel Coles in Cairo; Writing by Matthew Bigg, Editing by David Stamp)