NATO is assuming command of all aerial operations, including ground attacks, in Libya, taking the reins from the U.S. of the coalition force in a matter of days.

Ambassadors on Sunday afternoon approved an expanded plan to protect civilians from attacks by Moammar Gadhafi's ground forces.

As the NATO news trickled out, airstrikes targeted Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte for the first time. A heavy bombardment of Tripoli also began after nightfall and explosions and anti-aircraft fire could be heard all over the city.

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A rebel carries a rocket-propelled grenade as he jumps from a destroyed tank in the city of Ajdabiya. ((Associated Press))

Sirte is strategically located about halfway between the rebel-held east and the Gadhafi-controlled west along the coastal highway. It is considered a bastion of support for Gadhafi.

The NATO announcement comes after rebel fighters reportedly recaptured the eastern Libyan towns of Brega, Uqayla and Ras Lanouf.

The rebel action comes only a day after they regained control of the city of Ajdabiya, marking the first major turnaround in ground battles after international airstrikes began a week ago.

Ras Lanouf and Brega were responsible for a large chunk of Libya's 1.5 million barrels of daily exports, which have all but stopped since the uprising that began in mid-February and was inspired by the toppling of governments in Tunisia and Egypt.

Rebels had appeared on the verge of defeat, but have claimed victories in recent days  following coalition airstrikes, carried out to enforce a UN-mandated no-fly zone.

Their ultimate goal is to reach Gadhafi's stronghold of Tripoli, the Libyan capital.

The airstrikes have crippled the regime's missile launch sites, as well as tanks along the coastline, but rebel advances have also foundered, and the two sides have been at a stalemate in key cities.

Canada has committed six CF-18s to the Libya operation. Last week, some of the jets were used to destroy an ammunition depot in the city of Misrata, military officials said.

Gadhafi's regime on Saturday acknowledged the airstrikes had forced its troops to retreat and accused international forces of choosing sides.

"This is the objective of the coalition now, it is not to protect civilians because now they are directly fighting against the armed forces," Khaled Kaim, the deputy foreign minister, said in the capital, Tripoli. "They are trying to push the country to the brink of a civil war."

The United Nations Security Council authorized the coalition operation to protect Libyan civilians after Gadhafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who demanded that he step down after 42 years in power.

With files from The Associated Press