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Libyan Rebels March Toward Gadhafi's Hometown

Libyan rebel fighters pushed farther westward Sunday as troops loyal to Col. Moammar Gadhafi retreated in the face of Western airstrikes, but U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the international operation could last for months. Meanwhile, NATO said the alliance had decided to take over the entire military operation.

After capturing the city of Ajdabiya on Saturday, rebel forces rapidly advanced and took control of Brega and Ras Lanuf — two key oil terminal towns — putting the majority of the country's oil supplies in rebel hands.

"There was no resistance. Gadhafi's forces just melted away," 31-year-old Suleiman Ibrahim said while sitting in the back of a pickup truck on the road between the two towns. "This couldn't have happened without NATO. They gave us big support."

Meanwhile, air raids targeted Gadhafi's hometown and stronghold of Sirte for first time. Also, there were heavy international airstrikes on the capital, Tripoli, after nightfall Sunday.

But the anti-government forces have been here before. There is concern among some on the rebel's provisional government that the fighters are, once again, rushing forward with little coherent strategic or tactical planning.

While there's been little fighting since Ajdabiya's fall, the rebels face a huge obstacle in taking Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown, where it's estimated that a division of soldiers loyal to Gadhafi are waiting, dug in and well-armed.

The U.N. Security Council authorized the operation to protect Libyan civilians after Gadhafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who demanded that he step down after 42 years in power. The airstrikes have crippled Gadhafi's forces, allowing rebels to advance less than two weeks after they had seemed at the brink of defeat.

Extended Mission

But Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged Sunday that the mission could drag on.

"We have to a very large extent completed the military mission in terms of getting it set up," he said on NBC's Meet the Press. "Now, the no-fly zone and even the humanitarian side will have to be sustained for some period of time."

Asked for how long, he said: "Nobody knows the answer to that question."

On ABC's This Week, Gates said some NATO officials suggested it would take three months "but people in the Pentagon think it could be far longer than that."

Asked how important the Libya mission was, Gates said, bluntly: "It was not a vital national interest to the United States, but it was an interest."

Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the rounds of network TV talk shows, in interviews taped Saturday and aired Sunday, to promote the administration's case before a speech President Obama plans to give the nation Monday night.

NATO, which took over enforcing the no-fly zone from the U.S. late last week, announced Sunday that it was taking over the entire military operation.

"Our goal is to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack from the [Gadhafi] regime," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement. "NATO will implement all aspects of the U.N. Resolution. Nothing more, nothing less."

Concerns Over U.S. Role

Clinton told CBS' Face the Nation that no decision had been made yet on the whether to arm rebels seeking Gadhafi's ouster. So far, "results on the ground are pretty significant," she said.

She said she recognizes that many Americans are concerned about the role of the U.S., already burdened by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that "the president will speak to the country Monday night to answer a lot of those concerns."

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sounded some of those concerns in advance of Monday's speech.

"There has to be objectives and a plan and an agreement that we're prepared to devote the military forces but also the money," Lugar said on Meet the Press.

Meanwhile, thousands of civilians are trying to flee the fighting in Libya.

After three days at sea, at least 600 African migrants on boats from Libya landed Sunday on the tiny Italian island of Linosa. They are the first boat people from Libya to cross the Mediterranean since the anti-Gadhafi uprising began.

Two boats carrying Eritreans, Somalis and Ethiopians, including children and six pregnant women, were intercepted at sea by Italian Finance Guard Patrols; they are eligible for political asylum.

NPR's Eric Westervelt and Sylvia Poggioli contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press

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NPR Staff and Wires