Moammar Gadhafi's snipers and tanks are attacking civilians in Libya's third-largest city, leading the commander of the coalition enforcing a no-fly zone to say Tuesday that attacks on the Libyan leader's ground forces will accelerate in the "coming hours and days."

Residents of Misrata, a coastal city 200 kilometres southeast of Tripoli, say unrelenting bombardment and sniper fire have left residents cowering in darkened homes and scrounging for food and rainwater.

U.S. Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear confirmed that Gadhafi's forces were attacking Misrata's civilians and said that as the "capability of the coalition" grows, it will be able to do more to attack ground troops who are targeting civilians.

Locklear, speaking to reporters by telephone from aboard his flagship in the Mediterranean Sea, said Libyan ground troops will be more vulnerable as the coalition grows in size and capability, but would not provide details of future targets.

On Tuesday, Libyan TV broadcast what it said was a live speech by Gadhafi before a crowd of supporters at his encampment near Tripoli, his first public appearance in a week.

Standing on a balcony, Gadhafi denounced the coalition bombing attacks and said: "In the short term, we'll beat them, in the long term, we'll beat them."

In Tripoli meanwhile, heavy anti-aircraft fire and loud explosions sounded throughout the Libyan capital after nightfall, believed to herald a new attack in the international air campaign that so far has focused on military targets.

Another two dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from U.S. and British submarines late Monday and early Tuesday, bringing to 161 the number of missile strikes since the operation started Saturday.

Conditions have deteriorated sharply in Misrata, one of the last major cities held by the rebel force trying to end Gadhafi's four-decade rule.

One doctor inside the city told The Associated Press said tanks opened fire on a peaceful protest on Monday.

"The number of dead are too many for our hospital to handle," said the doctor, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from Gadhafi's troops.

As for food, he said: "We share what we find and if we don't find anything, which happens, we don't know what to do."

International forces, including U.S., British, and French warships, missiles and aircraft have been pounding Libyan military targets since the weekend.

They have also taken out an administrative building inside Gadhafi's compound in the capital Tripoli, as well as a column of government tanks that had been advancing on the eastern city of Benghazi, among other targets.

Air strikes cripple air defences

American military officials have said that three days of airstrikes have wiped out half of Libya's air defences and effectively grounded Gadhafi's air force, which will severely limit his ability to fight back rebel troops pushing for his ouster.

So far, there have been no reported casualties among international forces, though the U.S. confirmed Tuesday that two of its aircrew were forced to eject from an F-15 Strike Eagle jet after a mechanical failure occurred on Monday night.

Both men were rescued shortly after safely parachuting to the ground.

Canada has contributed six CF-18 fighters, two air-to-air refueling planes and the frigate HMCS Charlottetown to the air and naval forces enforcing a United Nations embargo and no-fly zone on Libya.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay told reporters in Ottawa that Canada remains determined to oust Gadhafi's "murderous regime."

"The (U.S.) president has been clear, our prime minister has been clear: Gadhafi has to go."

The Canadian air force jets have flown at least two missions so far, one to intercept any Libyan aircraft that took to the skies and another to attack a military airfield. The bombing mission was called off at the last minute because of an unacceptably high risk of civilian casualties, Canadian Forces officials said Tuesday.

MacKay said that an additional 25 Canadian Forces personnel are now on their way to Naples, Italy, to help co-ordinate the mission -- bringing Canada's total military contribution to more than 400 people.

He could not say how long the mission would last. "That's very difficult to predict. This depends on a number of factors, including the resolve and determination of Gadhafi to hang on," MacKay said.

"Clearly Gadhafi has dug in and entrenched … we know somewhat of his indications, public statements that he has made as to his determination to stay and to wreak revenge and havoc on civilians that have supported the uprising."

Neither the rebels nor Gadhafi's forces are strong enough to hold Misrata or Ajdabiya, a key city in the east that is also a daily battleground.

Rebels say they are grateful to West

Most of eastern Libya is in rebel hands but the anti-government force has struggled to take advantage of the international air campaign, which appears to have rescued the rebels from impending defeat.

Rebel fighter Ahmed Buseifi, 32, said the coalition airstrikes levelled the playing field.

"If not for the West we would not have been able to push forward," he said.

In Misrata, the doctor said rebel fighters were vastly outgunned. "The fighters are using primitive tools like swords, sticks and anything they get from the Gadhafi mercenaries," he said.

Mokhtar Ali, a Libyan dissident in exile who is still in touch which his family in Misrata, said rooftop snipers target anyone on the street, and residents trapped inside have no idea who has been killed.

"People live in total darkness in terms of communications and electricity," Ali said. "Residents live on canned food and rainwater tanks."

The Obama administration is eager to relinquish leadership of the hurriedly assembled coalition and U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday the U.S. military's role will lessen in coming days as other countries take on more missions.

France has now agreed with the United States that NATO should have a role in coalition military operations in Libya.

A statement issued in Paris said that French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. President Barack Obama "agreed on the modalities of using the structures of the NATO command to support the coalition."

Separately, British Prime Minister David Cameron's office said that he and Obama also agreed that NATO should play a key role in commanding the military campaign in Libya.

MacKay said from Ottawa that command of the operations over Libya is "somewhat of a hybrid" but suggested Canada would prefer NATO leadership.

Locklear said the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar is expected to start flying air patrols over Libya by this weekend, becoming the first member of the Arab League to participate directly in the military mission.

And the Dutch government says it will deploy six F-16 fighter jets, a refuelling plane and a navy minesweeper to help enforce the arms embargo against Libya.

With files from The Associated Press