Five nations launch attack on Libya

US, France, UK, Canada, Italy plan air strikes that will target air defenses in Libyan cities of Tripoli, Misrata; joint operation called “Odyssey Dawn."

Rebel fighter shoots AK-47 in air 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Rebel fighter shoots AK-47 in air 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
A five-country coalition including the United States, France, Britain, Canada and Italy is launching strikes on Libya designed to cripple Muammar Gaddafi’s air defenses, the Pentagon said Saturday.
The air strikes will mainly target air defenses around the Libyan cities of Tripoli and Misrata, in a joint operation called “Odyssey Dawn,” a US official said on condition of anonymity.
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A military slide showed some 25 coalition ships, including three US submarines armed with Tomahawk missiles, stationed in the Mediterranean. US and British ships and submarines fired more than 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Libyan targets to take out their air defenses, a senior US military official said.
Five US surveillance planes are also in the area, the slide showed, and the official added that US forces and planes will take part in the operation. A Pentagon spokesman said coalition partners – including Arab states – other than the five countries named, would announce their participation in the offensive themselves.
The French air force fired the first shot Saturday, destroying Libyan tanks and armored vehicles in a UN-mandated military intervention to protect civilians from attacks by Gaddafi’s forces.
A French defense ministry official said “a number of tanks and armored vehicles” were destroyed in the region of Benghazi, with initial action focusing on stopping Gaddafi’s forces from advancing on the rebels’ eastern stronghold. US and UK forces followed with missile attacks at Libyan air defenses.
“Tonight, British forces are in action over Libya,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said.
“We have all seen the appalling brutality that Colonel Gaddafi has meted out against his own people. And far from introducing the ceasefire he spoke about, he has actually stepped up the attacks,” Cameron said, adding the UN-backed military action was “necessary, legal and right.”
Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Britain’s Sky News that Gaddafi could be gone “within weeks.” Speaking of the UNmandated no-fly zone, he said, “I believe that if this is imposed effectively, and backed by the Arab countries – which is extremely significant – it might ultimately lead to him being toppled… We hope that is what will happen ultimately. Probably within several weeks or several months, Gaddafi will be over.”
Gaddafi’s troops pushed into the outskirts of Benghazi on Saturday after a unilateral ceasefire declared by his government failed to materialize – prompting leaders meeting in Paris on Saturday to announce the start of military intervention.
“Those taking part agreed to put in place all necessary means, especially military, to enforce the decisions of the United Nations Security Council,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy said after meeting Western and Arab leaders.
France and Britain have taken a lead role in pushing for international intervention in Libya.
Meanwhile, the US – after embarking on wars in Afghanistan and Libya – has been at pains to stress it is supporting, but not leading the operation.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US would bring its “unique capabilities” to help its European and Canadian allies in enforcing a UN resolution passed on Thursday.
Asked if the aim was to overthrow Gaddafi, she did not answer the question directly, but said the aim of Western powers was to protect civilians.
“If the international community is to have credibility... then action must take place,” she said, adding that Washington has yet to decide whether to follow France in formally recognizing the rebel government in Benghazi.
Clinton listed several reasons why the US should be involved in Libya, including the humanitarian desire to prevent civilian deaths, and the need to ally with regional leaders at a time of sweeping change in the Arab world.
Visiting Brazil on Saturday, US President Barack Obama said, “The people of Libya must be protected. And in the absence of an immediate end to the violence against civilians, our coalition is prepared to act, and act with urgency.”
Obama said limited US military action had begun to protect Libyan civilians against attacks.
UN Secretary-General Ban Kimoon addressed delegates in Paris.
“I join the Security Council in calling for an immediate ceasefire by the Libyan authorities,” he said. “Along with a complete dismantling of their military deployments of both armed forces – as well as heavy weaponry around the major cities of Libya – so that the people can go around their normal business without fear or insecurity.”
Gaddafi has said Western powers had no right to intervene.
“This is injustice, this is clear aggression,” government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim quoted Gaddafi as saying in a letter to France, Britain and the United Nations. “You will regret it if you take a step toward interfering in our internal affairs.”
Thousands of Libyans packed into Gaddafi’s heavily fortified Tripoli compound to form a human shield against possible air strikes by allied forces.
Fireworks erupted into the night sky, and people fired defiant shots into the air at the compound after allied warplanes went into action in eastern Libya to stop the Libyan leader’s forces attacking the rebel-held city of Benghazi.
Libyans from all walks of life streamed into the Bab Al-Aziziyah compound, shouting slogans and holding portraits of Gaddafi.
Loudspeakers boomed songs praising the leader.
In Benghazi, a large plume of black smoke rose from the edge of the city in mid-afternoon, live television pictures showed – but it was not clear what was causing the fire.
Hundreds of cars full of refugees fled Benghazi toward the Egyptian border after the city came under a bombardment overnight. As explosions shook Benghazi on Saturday morning, rebels said they were forced to retreat from the outskirts of the city, but later claimed victory after holding back the advance.
An unidentified warplane was also shot down over Benghazi.
“I saw the plane circle around, come out of the clouds, head toward an apparent target, and then it was hit and went straight down in flames and a huge billow of black smoke went up,” Reuters correspondent Angus MacSwan said. “It seems it was attacking the Benghazi military barracks.”
In the besieged western city of Misrata, residents said government shells and snipers killed nine people on Saturday – and the hospital could not operate on the wounded because it had no anesthetic.
Misrata, about 200 km. east of Tripoli, is the last big rebel stronghold in the west of the country, and people living there say forces loyal to Gaddafi are still trying to retake the city despite a ceasefire.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez – one of Gaddafi’s few remaining allies – reiterated his support Saturday behind the embattled Libyan leader.
“They want to seize Libya’s oil and they care nothing about the lives of the Libyan people,” Chavez said on state TV.
“Another imposition of the warmongering policies of the Imperial Yankee and its allies is unfortunate, and it is unfortunate that the United Nations endorses the war – in contravention of its fundamental principles,” Chavez added. “We know what is going to happen: bombs, bombs, war, more suffering for the people...this is the hand of capitalism.”
Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report from Washington.