Air attacks hit government targets in Libya for a third night running, as rifts in the international coalition develop over the leadership and the scope of the military operations against the North African state.

A total of 12 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired on a regional command centre and a Scud missile site. Air strikes were reported in the capital Tripoli and nearby ports facilities.

The attacks failed to halt the fighting on the ground. A government attack on the rebel-held town of Misrata was repulsed and a rebel push towards Ajdabiya was thwarted by regime forces.

After missiles had destroyed a communications centre in Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s Tripoli compound the previous night, US President Barack Obama said that while averting a humanitarian disaster was the priority, removing Qaddafi was part of his government’s policy.

“I have also stated that it is US policy that Qaddafi has to go and we have a wide range of tools to support that policy,” he said.

The Pentagon insisted that the air strikes and the no-fly zone have the limited aim of preventing atrocities by government forces.

There was a similar rift in the UK, as Prime Minister David Cameron called the removal of Qaddafi desirable, while Defence Minister Liam Fox insisted on a mandate limited to imposing a ceasefire.

The nature of the military intervention had been questioned elsewhere, as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin voiced his concerns about the UN resolution sanctioning the air strikes, calling them “defective and flawed”.

Following concerns about the role the US had taken in the operation, Obama also said that the US would soon relinquish their leadership of the international coalition, “in a matter of days and not in a matter of weeks”.

“A transfer from the US to Europe was held up by a Nato dispute, with Turkey objecting to the scale of the attacks,” Obama told journalists during his state visit to Chile.

There had been unease about the coalition, with Norway saying it would not commit it fighter jets until it was clear who was in overall command.

Meanwhile, the air attacks and the sanctions against Libya make it impossible for international oil companies (IOCs) to resume their activities, should the Qaddafi regime remain in place.

“Most of the IOCs in Libya are in a situation where their home governments de facto are at war with the country’s regime, making it increasingly hard for them to envision returning to some form of normality should the Libyan regime in the end not crumble,” IHS Global Insight Sam Ciszuk writes in a report.

Should the regime prevail, an expulsion of Western IOCs would be at odds with the government’s stated ambition to resume production and exports as quickly as possible. Replacing Western companies with counterparts from countries that are not taking part in the military operation would lead to significant delays, while the refusal of international banks to process transactions involving the Libyan government would make oil payments extremely difficult.