France, Britain lead operation against Gaddafi

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Western forces hit targets along the Libyan coast for a second day today (20 March), using air and sea strikes to force Muammar Gaddafi's troops to cease fire and end attacks on civilians.

French planes fired the first shots in what is the biggest international military intervention in the Arab world since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, destroying tanks and armoured vehicles in the region of the rebels' eastern stronghold, Benghazi.

Hours later, US and British warships and submarines launched 110 Tomahawk missiles against air defences around the capital Tripoli and the western city of Misrata, which has been besieged by Gaddafi's forces, US military officials said.

They said US forces and planes were working with the UK, France, Canada and Italy in operation "Odyssey Dawn".

Gaddafi called it "colonial, crusader" aggression.

"It is now necessary to open the stores and arm all the masses with all types of weapons to defend the independence, unity and honour of Libya," he said in an audio message broadcast on state television hours after the strikes began.

State television said the "crusader enemy" hit civilian areas of Tripoli and fuel storage tanks that supplied Misrata.

Residents in Misrata said air strikes had targeted a military airbase where Gaddafi loyalists were based.

Several Tripoli residents said they heard an explosion near the eastern Tajoura district. "I heard an explosion. I saw a flash, it was a very strong explosion," said one.

In Benghazi, where earlier on Saturday rebels said they had beaten back an advance by Gaddafi's troops, residents welcomed the military intervention but were also apprehensive.

"We think this will end Gaddafi's rule. Libyans will never forget France's stand with them. If it weren't for them, then Benghazi would have been overrun tonight," said Iyad Ali, 37.

"We salute, France, Britain, the United States and the Arab countries for standing with Libya. But we think Gaddafi will take out his anger on civilians. So the West has to hit him hard," said Khalid al-Ghurfaly, a civil servant, 38.

'All necessary means'

Earlier on Saturday, leaders meeting in Paris (see 'Background') announced the start of military intervention after Gaddafi's troops pushed into the outskirts of Benghazi in spite of a UN resolution passed on Thursday calling for an end to attacks on civilians.

"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 the meeting of Western and Arab leaders.

"Colonel Gaddafi has made this happen," UK Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters after the meeting. "We cannot allow the slaughter of civilians to continue."

Some analysts have questioned the strategy for the military intervention, fearing Western forces might be sucked into a long civil war despite a US insistence – repeated on Saturday – that it has no plans to send ground troops into Libya.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper suggested that outside powers hoped their intervention would be enough to turn the tide against Gaddafi and allow Libyans to force him out.

"It is our belief that if Mr. Gaddafi loses the capacity to enforce his will through vastly superior armed forces, he simply will not be able to sustain his grip on the country."

A US military slide showed some 25 coalition ships, including three US submarines armed with Tomahawk missiles, are stationed in the Mediterranean.

The Libyan government has blamed rebels, who it says belong to al Qaeda, for breaking a cease-fire it announced on Friday.

In Tripoli, several thousand people gathered at the Bab al-Aziziyah palace, Gaddafi's compound that was bombed by US warplanes in 1986, to show their support.

"There are 5,000 tribesmen that are preparing to come here to fight with our leader. They better not try to attack our country," said farmer Mahmoud el-Mansouri.

"We will open up Libya's deserts and allow Africans to flood to Europe to blow themselves up as suicide bombers."

US says not leading intervention

France and Britain have taken a lead role in pushing for international intervention in Libya and the United States – after embarking on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – has been at pains to stress it is supporting, not leading, the operation.

In announcing the missile strikes, which came eight years to the day after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Obama said the effort was intended to protect the Libyan people.

"Today I authorised the armed forces of the United States to begin a limited action in Libya in support of an international effort to protect Libyan civilians," Obama told reporters in Brasilia, where he had begun a five-day tour of Latin America.

He said US troops were acting in support of allies, who would lead the enforcement of a no-fly zone to stop Gaddafi's attacks on rebels. "As I said yesterday, we will not, I repeat, we will not deploy any US troops on the ground," Obama said.

But despite Washington's determination to stress the limits of its role, Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, director of the US military's Joint Staff, said the missile strikes were only the first phase of multiphase military action.

Many analysts do not think Western powers would be satisfied with a de facto partition which left the rebels in control in the east and Gaddafi running a rump state in the west.

One participant at the Paris meeting said that Clinton and others had stressed Libya should not be split in two.

And Obama on Friday specifically called on Gaddafi's forces to pull back from the western cities of Zawiyah and Misrata as well from the east.

But security analysts have questioned what western powers will do if Gaddafi digs in.

"It's going to be far less straightforward if Gaddafi starts to move troops into the cities which is what he has been trying to do for the past 24 hours," said Marko Papic at the STRATFOR global intelligence group.

"Once he does that it becomes a little bit more of an urban combat environment and at that point it's going to be difficult to use air power from 15,000 feet to neutralise that."

Thousands flee Benghazi

Earlier on Saturday hundreds of cars full of refugees fled Benghazi towards the Egyptian border after the city came under a bombardment overnight. One family of 13 women from a grandmother to small children, rested at a roadside hotel.

"I'm here because when the bombing started last night my children were vomiting from fear," said one of them, a doctor. "All I want to do is get my family to a safe place and then get back to Benghazi to help. My husband is still there."

Those who remained set up make-shift barricades with furniture, benches, road signs and even a barbecue in one case at intervals along main streets. Each barricade was manned by half a dozen rebels, but only about half of those were armed.

In the besieged western city of Misrata, residents said government forces shelled the rebel town again early on Saturday, while water supplies had been cut off for a third day.

"I am telling you, we are scared and we are alone," a Misrata resident, called Saadoun, told Reuters by telephone.

Al Jazeera television reported on Saturday that Libya's rebel military council was coordinating with the international coalition that had launched air strikes against areas where Muammar Gaddafi's forces were present.

It also said Western forces had bombarded a military college near the west Libyan city of Misrata where it said Gaddafi's forces were based.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

French President Nicolas Sarkozy stated at the Paris summit:

"In Libya, a peaceful civil population that wants nothing more than choosing its fate itself, is threatened by death. We have the obligation to answer their anxious appeal. The future of Libya belongs to the Libyans. We cannot decide for them. The battle they fight for their freedom is their battle. If we intervene alongside Arab countries, it is not because of a goal which we are trying to impose on the Libyan people, but in the name of a universal conscience which cannot tolerate such crimes.

"There is still time for Colonel Gaddafi to avoid the worse by conforming himself without delay and without reservation to the exigencies of the international community. The door of diplomacy will open again when those aggressions would cease.

"France is decided to assume its role, its role before history."

UK Prime Minister David Cameron stated after the Paris summit:

"What is absolutely clear is that Gaddafi has broken his word, broken the ceasefire and continues to slaughter his own civilians.

"This has to stop. We have to make it stop. We have to make him face the consequences. So I think it is vitally important that action takes place and action takes place urgently.

"Obviously at this time our thoughts should be with those who are going to risk their lives to help save the lives of others.

"I think it is vitally important that, with the United Nations behind us, with the clear legality of this action, and with local countries supporting us as well, it is right to act."

US President Barack Obama, who is on a visit to Brazil, stated:

"This is not an outcome that the United States or any of our partners sought.

"I am deeply aware of the risks of any military action, no matter what limits we place on it. I want the American people to know that the use of force is not our first choice and it’s not a choice that I make lightly. But we cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy, and his forces step up their assaults on cities like Benghazi and Misrata, where innocent men and women face brutality and death at the hands of their own government.

"So we must be clear: Actions have consequences, and the writ of the international community must be enforced. That is the cause of this coalition. 

"As a part of this effort, the United States will contribute our unique capabilities at the front end of the mission to protect Libyan civilians, and enable the enforcement of a no-fly zone that will be led by our international partners. And as I said yesterday, we will not - I repeat - we will not deploy any US troops on the ground.

"I'm also proud that we are acting as part of a coalition that includes close allies and partners who are prepared to meet their responsibility to protect the people of Libya and uphold the mandate of the international community."

Russia said on Saturday it regretted a decision by Western nations to take military action in Libya.

"Air force units from a host of countries began military actions in Libya on 19 March," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement.

UK Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy said he believes it is unlikely that foreign troops will need to invade Libya, the BBC reported on 19 March. He said he thinks stopping Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, his military, his heavy artillery, his tanks and his airplanes from being able to make attacks on civilian centres can be done in the way in which the UN has outlined.

Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, stated at the Paris summit in support of the Libyan people:

"Time is pressing. The resolution of the UN Security Council has to be implemented as soon as possible. Action is needed now to protect the population.

"The current Libyan regime has to withdraw from all areas they have entered by force, return to their compounds and allow humanitarian aid. The political transition has to start immediately with a key role for the National Transitional Council."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy hosted a 'Summit for the support of the Libyan People' on 19 March in Paris. Immediately after the summit, military operations against Gaddafi's forces were launched.

Summit participants included Ban Ki-Moon, secretary-general of the United Nations, José Luis Zapatero, prime minister of Spain; Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany; Steven Harper, prime minister of Canada; Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassem, prime minister of Qatar; Donald Tusk, prime minister of Poland; Lars Loekke Rasmussen, prime minister of Denmark; Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister of Italy; George Papandreou, prime minister of Greece; Jens Stoltenberg, prime minister of Norway; Yves Leterme, prime minister of Belgium; David Cameron, prime minister of the United Kingdom; and Mark Rutte, prime minister of the Netherlands.

Also in attendance were Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the League of Arab States; Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council; Catherine Ashton, European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy; Hoshyar Mahmoud Zebari, foreign minister of the Republic of Iraq; Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates; Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State of the United States of America; Nasser Joudeh, foreign minister of Jordan; and Taïeb Fassi-Fihri, foreign minister of Morocco.

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