NATO forces destroyed 17 tanks belonging to Muammar Gaddafi's forces as the alliance stepped up the pace of its operations in the country, NATO officials said.

One NATO official said NATO aircraft hit 15 tanks near the western city of Misrata, where Gaddafi's forces are attacking rebels, and two south of Brega in the east of the country.

‘Friday's operations could prove to have had the highest tempo (since NATO took command of military operations in Libya),’ the official said.

NATO's commander of Libyan operations said the alliance, which took command of western air strikes against Gaddafi on 31 March, had destroyed ‘a significant percentage’ of his armoured forces in the past 24 hours.

Targets also included ammunition stockpiles east of the capital, Tripoli.

Meanwhile, Col Gaddafi made his first television appearance for five days today.

Gaddafi's forces shelled the western outskirts of Ajdabiyah, launch point for rebel attacks towards the Mediterranean oil port of Brega.

A Reuters correspondent heard artillery impacts and machinegun fire for around 30 minutes, coming from the western boundary of the town, the gateway to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi 150km to the northeast.

Al Jazeera television said Gaddafi forces had entered Ajdabiyah.

Col Gaddafi smiled and pumped his fists in the air as he received an ecstatic welcome at a school in Tripoli.

Gaddafi, wearing his trademark brown robes and dark glasses, was last seen on television on 4 April and looked confident and relaxed.

Inconclusive see-saw battles have raged along the desert road between Brega and Ajdabiyah for over a week after Gaddafi's military pushed back a rebel advance.

Western generals are increasingly pessimistic that the military stalemate can be broken despite NATO air attacks on Gaddafi's armoured forces.

A Red Cross ship managed to dock in Misrata today carrying enough medical supplies to treat 300 patients with gunshot wounds.