Col Muammar Gaddafi’s air force “no longer exists as a fighting force”, the commander of British aircraft operating over Libya has said.
Air Vice Marshal Greg Bagwell said the allies could now operate “with near impunity” over the skies of Libya.
He said they were now applying unrelenting pressure on the Libyan armed forces.
“We are watching over the innocent people of Libya and ensuring that we protect them from attack,” he said.
“We have the Libyan ground forces under constant observation and we attack them whenever they threaten civilians or attack population centres.”
His comments come as Nato members debate who should lead the intervention, with the US keen to hand over to Nato.
They were echoed by Rear Admiral Gerard Hueber, US chief of staff for the Libya mission, who said: “We are putting pressure on Gadaffi’s ground forces that are threatening cities.” Asked if that meant air strikes, he replied: “Yes.”
Speaking to reporters by phone from the command ship USS Mount Whitney, in the Mediterranean, he insisted there had been no reports of civilian casualties caused by allied action.
“Our mission here is to protect the civilian populace and we choose our targets and plan our actions with that as a top priority.”
He said allied aircraft had flown 175 sorties in the last 24 hours – 113 of them by US aircraft.
Western aircraft have flown more than 300 sorties over Libya in recent days and more than 162 Tomahawk cruise missiles have been fired.
Earlier, witnesses reported that international forces had launched new air strikes near Libya’s rebel-held western city of Misrata.
Witnesses said tanks pulled back from their positions, from where they have been spearheading a siege of the city for days, but said snipers continued to target people from rooftops.
Mohamed, a spokesman for the rebels in Misrata, said: “Misrata was in a desperate state… we almost lost all hope, but the strikes came at a good time with good intensity and frequency.
“They even managed to take out some convoys inside the city which was very impressive.
“The strikes made such a difference – Gaddafi’s forces are scared of them. I want to express our gratitude and appreciation for these actions – we will never, ever forget.”
Muammar Gaddafi appeared on Libyan TV making a defiant address to supporters
Col Gaddafi’s forces have also resumed their pounding of Zintan, near the Tunisian border, according to reports.
And there are also reports of fierce fighting between rebels and pro-Gaddafi forces in the strategic eastern town of Ajdabiya. Residents fleeing the town described shelling, gunfire and houses on fire.
Late on Tuesday, Col Gaddafi made his first public appearance in a week and gave a short speech to a crowd of supporters in Tripoli.
He urged “all Islamic armies” to join him, saying: “We will be victorious.”
Meanwhile, ships from Nato nations have started patrolling off the Libyan coast to enforce a UN arms embargo against Col Gaddafi’s regime.
A spokesman for the Western military alliance, Canadian Brig Gen Pierre St Amand, said six vessels were taking part in the first day of patrols.
They aim to intercept and board ships suspected of ferrying arms to the Libyan government.
“If, after inspection, doubts remain as to the legitimacy of the cargo, the vessel will be diverted to a designated port for further inspection,” Gen St Amand said.
Nato members are currently holding talks about assuming responsibility for the no-fly zone over Libya.
Turkey is an integral part of the naval blockade but expressed concern about the alliance taking over command of the no-fly zone from the US.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has arrived in the Egyptian capital Cairo for talks on both Libya and Egypt’s hoped-for transition to democracy following the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
He was previously in Moscow, where President Dmitry Medvedev criticised what he called the “indiscriminate use of force” by coalition aircraft in Libya.
Mr Gates rejected the criticism of the air strikes, saying Col Gaddafi was lying about civilian casualties.
Russia abstained from last week’s UN Security Council resolution that authorised armed intervention in Libya to protect civilians.