Canada is sending two reconnaissance aircraft, CP-140 Auroras, to Italy to support efforts to protect civilians in Libya, Defence Minister Peter MacKay says.

He said Canada will deploy the planes to provide "strategic maritime surveillance" in support of the UN-backed mission in Libya.

The announcement came as the ground battle between Libyan rebels and forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi raged on, following a fifth night of targeted airstrikes by an international coalition.

"To be clear, our coalition has established air superiority," MacKay said Thursday at a briefing in Ottawa. "However, Gadhafi's ground forces continue to attack and kill civilians."

The CP-140 Aurora can fly for a 17-hour stretch, and is often used to patrol Canada's coastlines and can be used to detect stealth submarines. One of the planes is from the airbase in Greenwood, N.S., and the other from Comox, B.C.  

MacKay said the planes would likely patrol the Libyan coast as part of an effort to enforce a UN-backed arms embargo.


Canada is sending two CP-140 aircraft to patrol the Libyan coast and help maintain the UN-backed arms embargo. (Sgt. Frank Hudec/DND)

Canada has six CF-18s committed to the operation, and a seventh in the area as a back up. HMCS Charlottetown has also been dispatched to the area. The latest deployment will bring the number of Canadian military personnel committed to the Libyan mission to 435.

The additional support will help the coalition as it tries to prevent the Gadhafi regime from committing crimes against civilians, MacKay said.

The UN Security Council authorized the no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians after Gadhafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who wanted him to leave after 42 years in power.

NATO agreed  late Thursday to assume control of the no-fly zone, but the U.S.-led coalition will still supervise attacks on targets on the ground.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council Thursday there was no evidence Libya has adhered to a ceasefire as claimed. He said his special envoy had warned the Libyan government that the UN was "prepared to take additional measures."

Ban said that representatives of the Gadhafi government and the Libyan opposition would attend an African Union meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Friday in an effort to reach a ceasefire and political solution.

Civilians still at risk

French fighter jets hit aircraft and a crossroads military base deep inside Libya on Thursday as the U.S. reduced its combat role in the international operation that is working to thwart Moammar Gadhafi's forces by land, sea and air.

P.O.V. How long do you think the Libya mission should last?

Explosions could be heard in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, before daybreak Friday, apparently from airstrikes.

Libya's air force has been effectively neutralized, and the government has taken part of its fight to the airwaves. State television aired pictures of bodies it said were victims of airstrikes, but a U.S. intelligence report bolstered rebel claims that Gadhafi's forces had simply taken bodies from a morgue.

On Thursday, clashes were reported in the eastern city of Ajdabiya, where rebels were trying to gain ground, and the coastal city of Misrata, where Gadhafi loyalists resumed attacks after overnight airstrikes.

Gadhafi supporters and rebel fighters have been stuck in a stalemate in Ajdabiya for days, CBC's Nahlah Ayed said, with neither side strong enough to fully capture the city.

"We witnessed a large number of civilians streaming out from Ajdabiya … saying the city had been destroyed, that they had been under siege for many days."

She spoke to CBC News Network from Benghazi, having just come from an area near Ajdabiya.

She reported seeing a large number of rebels trying to get into Ajdabiya to try to defeat Gadhafi forces. The rebels had "a bit more sophisticated weaponry — rocket launchers that apparently had not been seen in the area before."

Families still fleeing

The rebels said that when they tried to make a push into Ajdabiya, the first thing they faced as they walked into the city was what they described as "human shields."

Families were still flowing out of the town Thursday morning in a desperate bid to escape the violence and dire conditions in the city, where power cuts and food shortages are a growing program, CBC's Margaret Evans said.


Men gather at a mass funeral Thursday in Tripoli for people killed in coalition bombings, Libyan officials said. (Albert Facelly/Sipa Press/Associated Press)

Residents fleeing the violence said the situation inside the city has deteriorated in recent days. Two airstrikes targeted the area early Thursday, said a rebel, Taha el-Hassadi.

Evans reported Thursday from south of Benghazi, where the road to Ajdabiya was littered with remnants of Gadhafi's military hardware, burnt-out tanks and multi-rocket launchers following coalition airstrikes.

Rebels attempting to take the city of Ajdabiya are desperately short of equipment and they salvage what they can from the wreckage.

"The ragtag army that heads out towards Ajdabiya with such enthusiasm each morning continues to be repelled by pro-Gadhafi soldiers dug into the city," Evans said.

Civilians are fleeing Ajdabiya, which lacks water and electricity and is divided between battling rebel and government forces.

At a news conference in Benghazi Thursday, a military spokesman for the rebels appealed for weapons.

"We are facing cannons, T-72 and T-92 tanks, so what do we need? We need anti-tank weapons, things like that," said Col. Ahmed Omar Bani. "We are preparing our army now. Before there was no army, from now there is an idea to prepare a new army with new armaments and new morals."

The UN arms embargo, however, keeps both Gadhafi and his rebel opposition from obtaining more weapons.

There were also reports of new clashes in Misrata, a port city east of the capital of Tripoli.

A 42-year-old doctor in Misrata said shelling had damaged a mosque and a hotel near the hospital.

"When the allies' planes were seen flying in the sky, the shelling stopped and the tanks fled," he said. "We still have to deal with snipers in the main street in Misrata and try to warn people to stay away from it."

Also Thursday, French strikes hit a base about 250 kilometers south of the Libyan coastline, as well as a Libyan combat plane that had just landed outside the strategic city of Misrata, France's military said.

More than 345,000 people have fled Libya in the past month, the International Organization for Migration said Thursday.

With files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press