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April 21st, 2011
07:00 PM ET

Explosions, planes heard in Tripoli; rebels seize border crossing

CNN Wire Staff

Tripoli, Libya (CNN) - Large explosions and the sound of jets over Tripoli Thursday night indicated NATO has likely increased the intensity of its air strikes on Moammar Gadhafi's key command and control military sites.

CNN's Fred Pleitgen, reporting from Libya, heard at least three major explosions.

The alliance has issued a new warning to Libyan civilians to stay away from military areas, foreshadowing plans for attacks on targets seen as strategically significant in stopping the government's attacks against civilians, a NATO military official said Thursday.

The next phase will largely involve increased air strikes on key Gadhafi command, control and communications sites in and around Tripoli, although targets in other areas could be hit as well, said the official, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter.

NATO now has the use of armed U.S. Predator drones at its disposal.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates disclosed that the drones saw their first use in Libya Thursday, but poor weather forced them to return.

Unmanned aerial vehicles offer more precise targeting, because their low-flying capability allows for better visibility, "particularly on targets now that have started to dig themselves into defensive positions," Gates said.

The Predators bring "capabilities to the NATO commander that they didn't have before," he said. President Barack Obama approved their use.

Rebels, who have complained that NATO was not being aggressive enough to protect civilians, said Thursday they had gained control of a key border crossing into Tunisia.

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