(inquirer.net) TRIPOLI— (UPDATE 2) The US, Britain and France pounded Libya with air strikes and Tomahawk missiles on Saturday, sparking a furious response from Moammar Gadhafi who said the Mediterranean had now become a “battlefield.”
United States and British forces fired at least 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Libya’s air defence sites, a top US military officer said, two days after a UN Security Council resolution with Arab backing authorized military action.
Libyan state media said that Western warplanes bombed civilian targets in Tripoli, causing casualties while an army spokesman said strikes also hit fuel tanks feeding the rebel-held city of Misrata, east of Tripoli.
Libyan state television said a French warplane was shot down in the Njela district of Tripoli, but the French military swiftly denied the report.
Gadhafi, in a brief audio message broadcast on state television, fiercely denounced the attacks as a “barbaric, unjustified Crusaders’ aggression.”
He vowed retaliatory strikes on military and civilian targets in the Mediterranean, which he said had been turned into a “real battlefield.”
“Now the arms depots have been opened and all the Libyan people are being armed,” to fight against Western forces, the veteran leader warned.
US President Barack Obama, on a visit to Brazil, said he had given the green light for the operation, which is codenamed “Odyssey Dawn.”
“Today, I authorized the armed forces of the United States to begin a limited military action in Libya,” Obama said in Brasilia.
The first missile struck at 1900 GMT following air strikes carried out earlier by French warplanes, Admiral William Gortney, director of the US joint staff, said in Washington.
“It’s a first phase of a multi-phase operation” to enforce the UN resolution and prevent the Libyan regime from using force “against its own people,” he said.
One British submarine joined with other US ships and submarines in the missile attacks, he said.
The first strikes took place near Libya’s coast, notably around Tripoli and Misrata, “because that’s where the integrated missile defence systems are.”
US and allied countries are not yet enforcing a no-fly zone with aircraft patrolling the skies, he said, but “we’re setting the conditions to be able to reach that state.”
The targets included surface-to-air missile sites but it was too early to say how effective the Tomahawk strikes were, he said.
“Because it is night over there, it will be some time before we have a complete picture of the success of these strikes,” the admiral said.
The US operation followed initial missions by French warplanes, which carried out four air strikes Saturday, destroying several armoured vehicles from Gadhafi’s forces.
State television said hundreds of people had gathered at Bab al-Aziziyah, Gadhafi’s Tripoli headquarters, and at the capital’s international airport, ahead of the widely anticipated air strikes.
“Crowds are forming around the targets identified by France,” the television reported, showing pictures of flag-waving people gathering to serve as human shields.
Last week, a highly placed French source referred to Bab al-Aziziyah, a military air base in Sirte, east of the capital, and another in Sebha in the south as likely targets of a strike.
A French official told AFP that air strikes by Britain, France and the US Libyan territory are being coordinated at a US headquarters in Germany.
Russia’s foreign ministry expressed regret over the attacks under a Security Council Resolution 1973 which was “adopted in haste,” while the African Union, which opposed military action, aims to send a delegation to Tripoli on Sunday.
But British Prime Minister David Cameron said he held Gadhafi responsible for the situation in his country and that “the time for action” by the international community had come.
“Colonel Gadhafi has made this happen. He has lied to the international community, he has promised a ceasefire, he has broken that ceasefire. He continues to brutalize his own people,” Cameron told British television.
France said the air strikes would continue through the night.
In the rebel camp, celebratory gunfire and honking of car horns broke out in Al-Marj, 100 kilometres (60 miles) from Benghazi, to welcome the start of military operations against Gadhafi, correspondents said.
Thousands earlier Saturday fled Benghazi as Gadhafi loyalists pounded the eastern city, the rebels’ stronghold, with shells and tank fire after two early morning air strikes.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon said he was troubled by a telephone call from Libyan Prime Minister Baghdadi Mahmudi on Friday night.
“He told me that the Libyan government was fully abiding by the Security Council resolution and there will be an immediate ceasefire,” said the secretary general.
“But at the same time and overnight they were attacking Benghazi. It is very troubling; whatever they say must be verified.”
Since Friday, the Libyan government has insisted it was observing a self-declared ceasefire, shortly after the Security Council voted to authorise the use of force against Gadhafi’s troops to spare civilians.
The regime said its armed forces were under attack west of Benghazi, including by rebel aircraft, and had responded in self-defence.
But the rebels, who have been trying to overthrow the Libyan leader for more than a month, said government troops had continued to bombard cities, violating the ceasefire continuously.
In another Middle East hotspot, medics in Yemen on Saturday raised to 52 the death toll from a sniper attack on protesters in Sanaa the previous day, as thousands rallied despite a state of emergency.
The slaughter in Sanaa on Friday was the bloodiest day in weeks of unrest that have shaken the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a key US ally in its war against Al-Qaeda.
And security forces in Syria fired tear gas on Saturday at mourners burying two men killed in a protest in the southern city of Daraa the previous day, wounding several, rights activists said.
The official SANA news agency said a committee was being formed to investigate the “regrettable” events in Daraa.
In Bahrain, beleaguered King Hamad pledged to bring in reforms as Shiite-led pro-democracy protesters against the Sunni monarchy said they would not give up despite being cleared by police from Pearl Square in central Manama.
By Imed Lamloum