Saturday, 19 March 2011

Allies launch Libya force

BENGHAZI, Libya – The U.S. and European nations pounded Libya with cruise missiles and airstrikes targeting Moammar Gadhafi's forces Saturday, launching the broadest international military effort since the Iraq war in support of an uprising that had seemed on the verge of defeat.

The longtime Libyan leader vowed to defend his country from what he called "crusader aggression" and warned the involvement of international forces will subject the Mediterranean and North African region to danger and put civilians at risk.
The U.S. military said 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from American and British ships and submarines at more than 20 coastal targets to clear the way for air patrols to ground Libya's air force. French fighter jets fired the first salvos, carrying out several strikes in the rebel-held east.
President Barack Obama said military action was not his first choice.
"This is not an outcome the U.S. or any of our partners sought," Obama said from Brazil, where he is starting a five-day visit to Latin America. "We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy."
Thousands of regime supporters, meanwhile, packed into the sprawling Bab al-Aziziya military camp in Tripoli where Gadhafi lives to protect against attacks.
The strikes, which were aimed at enforcing a U.N.-mandated no-fly zone, were a sharp escalation in the international effort to stop Gadhafi after weeks of pleading by the rebels who have seen early gains reversed as the regime unleashed the full force of its superior air power and weaponry.
Gadhafi, who has ruled Libya for 41 years, said in a telephone call to Libyan state TV that he was opening weapons depots to allow his people to arm themselves in defense.
He said the international action against his forces was unjustified, calling it "simply a colonial crusader aggression that may ignite another large-scale crusader war."
His regime also acted quickly in the run-up to the strikes, sending warplanes, tanks and troops into the eastern city of Benghazi, the rebel capital and first city to fall to the rebellion that began Feb. 15. Then the government attacks appeared to go silent.
Operation Odyssey Dawn, as the coalition operation has been dubbed, followed an emergency summit in Paris during which the 22 leaders and top officials agreed to do everything necessary to make Gadhafi respect a U.N. Security Council resolution Thursday calling for the no-fly zone and demanding a cease-fire, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said.
"Our consensus was strong, and our resolve is clear. 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 to act with urgency," Obama said earlier.
Navy Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff, told reporters in Washington that U.S. ships and a British submarine had launched the first phase of a missile assault on Libyan air defenses to clear the way for the imposition of a U.N.-mandated no-fly zone over the North African country.
Gortney said the mission has two goals: prevent further attacks by Libyan forces on rebels and other civilians, and degrade the Libyan military's ability to contest a no-fly zone.
Mohammed Ali, a spokesman for the exiled opposition group the Libyan Salvation Front, said the Libyan air force headquarters at the Mateiga air base in eastern Tripoli, and the Aviation Academy in Misrata had been targeted.
About 20 French fighter jets carried out "several strikes" earlier Saturday, military spokesman Thierry Burkhard told The Associated Press. He said earlier that one of the planes had fired the first shot against a Libyan military vehicle.
"All our planes have returned to base tonight," he said, and denied a Libyan TV report that a French plane had been hit.
He would not elaborate on what was hit or where, but said French forces are focusing on the Benghazi area and U.S. forces are focused in the west.
The U.S. has struck Libya before. Former President Reagan launched U.S. airstrikes on Libya in 1986 after a bombing at a Berlin disco — which the U.S. blamed on Libya — that killed three people, including two American soldiers. The airstrikes killed about 100 people in Libya, including Gadhafi's young adopted daughter at his Tripoli compound.
Libyan regime official Mohammed al-Zwei claimed a large number of civilians were injured when several civilian and military sites in the capital, Tripoli, and the nearby city of Misrata were hit.
"This barbaric aggression against the Libyan people comes after we had announced a cease-fire against the armed militias which are part of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb," he said. The targets could not be independently verified.
The rebels said earlier that they had hoped for more, sooner from the international community, after a day when crashing shells shook the buildings of Benghazi and Gadhafi's tanks rumbled through the university campus.
"People are disappointed, they haven't seen any action yet. The leadership understands some of the difficulties with procedures but when it comes to procedures versus human lives the choice is clear," said Essam Gheriani, a spokesman for the opposition. "People on the streets are saying where are the international forces? Is the international community waiting for the same crimes to be perpetrated on Benghazi has have been done by Gadhafi in the other cities?"
A doctor said 27 bodies had reached hospitals by midday. As night fell, though, the streets grew quiet.
Libyan state television also showed Gadhafi supporters converging on the international airport and a military garrison in Tripoli, and the airport in Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, in an apparent attempt to deter bombing.
In an open letter, Gadhafi warned: "You will regret it if you dare to intervene in our country."
In Paris, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Gadhafi's government had lost all legitimacy and lied about the cease-fire.
"We have every reason to fear that left unchecked, Gadhafi will commit unspeakable atrocities," she said.
Saturday's emergency meeting in Paris, which also included U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and the foreign ministers of Jordan, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, was the largest international military action since the beginning of the Iraq war, launched almost exactly eight years ago.
"The time for action has come, it needs to be urgent," British Prime Minister David Cameron said after the summit.
Earlier Saturday, a plane was shot down over the outskirts of Benghazi, sending up a massive black cloud of smoke. An Associated Press reporter saw the plane go down in flames and heard the sound of artillery and crackling gunfire.
Before the plane went down, journalists heard what appeared to be airstrikes from it. Rebels cheered and celebrated at the crash, though the government denied a plane had gone down — or that any towns were shelled on Saturday.
The fighting galvanized the people of Benghazi, with young men collecting bottles to make gasoline bombs. Some residents dragged bed frames and metal scraps into the streets to make roadblocks.
"This city is a symbol of the revolution, it's where it started and where it will end if this city falls," said Gheriani.
But at Jalaa hospital, where the tile floors and walls were stained with blood, the toll was clear.
"There are more dead than injured," said Dr. Ahmed Radwan, an Egyptian who had been there helping for three weeks.
Jalaa's Dr. Gebreil Hewadi, a member of the rebel health committee, said city hospitals had received 27 bodies.
At a news conference in the capital, Tripoli, the government spokesman read letters from Gadhafi to Obama and others involved in the international effort.
"Libya is not yours. Libya is for the Libyans. The Security Council resolution is invalid," he said in the letter to Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.
To Obama, the Libyan leader was slightly more conciliatory: "If you had found them taking over American cities with armed force, tell me what you would do."
In a joint statement to Gadhafi late Friday, the United States, Britain and France — backed by unspecified Arab countries — called on Gadhafi to end his troops' advance toward Benghazi and pull them out of the cities of Misrata, Ajdabiya and Zawiya. It also called for the restoration of water, electricity and gas services in all areas. It said Libyans must be able to receive humanitarian aid or the "international community will make him suffer the consequences" with military action.
Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa said that Libyan officials had informed the U.N. and the Security Council that the government was abiding by the cease-fire it had announced Friday and called for a team of foreign observers to verify that.
In the course of the rebellion, Libya has gone from a once-promising economy with the largest proven oil reserves in Africa to a country in turmoil. The foreign workers that underpinned the oil industry have fled; production and exports have all but ground to a halt; and its currency is down 30 percent in just two weeks.
The oil minister, Shukri Ghanem, held a news conference calling on foreign oil companies to send back their workers. He said the government would honor all its contracts.
"We are still considering all our contracts and agreements with the oil companies valid," he said. "We hope from their part that they will honor their agreements, that they will send back their experts and their people to work."
He suggested future decisions on oil deals would favor countries that did not join the international force against Gadhafi: "A friend in need is a friend indeed," he told reporters in Tripoli.
Italy, which had been the main buyer for Libyan oil, offered the use of seven air and navy bases already housing U.S., NATO and Italian forces to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya.
Italy's defense minister, Ignazio La Russa, said Saturday that Italy wasn't just "renting out" its bases for others to use but was prepared to offer "moderate but determined" military support.
Warplanes from the United States, Canada, Denmark arrived at Italian air bases Saturday as part of an international military buildup. Germany backed the operation but isn't offering its own forces.

Al-Shalchi contributed from Tripoli, Libya. Associated Press writers Ben Hubbard in Cairo; Nicole Winfield in Rome; Jamey Keaten in Paris; and Robert Burns in Washington also contributed to this report.

Obama on Libya U.S. will not deploy ground forces

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More about Libya and U.S.

Plane shot down over Benghazi

A plane has been shot down over Benghazi as Moamar Gaddafi's forces defy international pressure and push into the town.

But there are conflicting reports from the government and rebels about who started the latest round of fighting in the rebel stronghold in the east of Libya.
The fighting began shortly before French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced an military intervention in Libya after an international summit in Paris.
Mr Sarkozy says the UN-backed intervention has already begun with French planes flying over Benghazi to prevent air strikes and tank assaults.
Libyan jet planes were heard over Benghazi just before 9:00am (local time).
There were multiple loud explosions and a military plane was seen being struck by anti-aircraft fire and crashing shortly afterwards.
The pilot reportedly parachuted from the aircraft identified as a Russian-built MIG 23.
The plane is used by the Libyan airforce but rebel sources say the plane which crashed was one of theirs.
A number of rockets exploded on the ground near the hotel occupied by foreign reporters.
Thousands of people have fled from the city, causing a huge traffic jam on the road to Tobruk and the Egyptian border, according to an AFP correspondent.
Earlier Libyan deputy foreign minister Khaled Kaaim confirmed government troops were outside Benghazi but he said they were under attack by rebel forces.
He said they were not returning fire and had no intention of pushing into the rebel stronghold.
Libyan foreign minister Mussa Kussa later asked UN chief Ban Ki-moon to send observers to monitor the ceasefire to "prove our credibility".
A Libyan rebel spokesman said Mr Gaddafi's forces had entered the city while a witness said rebels were erecting concrete barricades to defend their headquarters.
As explosions shook Benghazi, rebel fighters said they were being forced to retreat from the outskirts of the city where the revolt against Mr Gaddafi began a month ago.
Rebels said Libyan jets had bombed the road to the Benghazi airport and elsewhere on the outskirts.
"They were 60 kilometres away yesterday. Today they are 20 kilometres away and they can be here in a half hour to 90 minutes," rebel fighter Khalid Ahmed said at a rebel base on the western edge of the city.
The fighting in Benghazi has been so rife with rumours and hearsay that it is virtually impossible to verify them due to lack of communications.
Black plumes of smoke could be seen on the road to the west of the city, a Reuters witness said.
"We have no hope in the Western forces," Mr Ahmed, the rebel fighter, added as around him rebel forces pulled back from the advancing frontline.
Elsewhere in the city, rebels also reported skirmishes and strikes by Gaddafi forces.
"Fighter jets bombed the road to the airport and there's been an air strike on the Abu Hadi district on the outskirts," said Mohammed Dwo, a hospital worker and a rebel supporter.

U.S. Military Attacks Libya

WASHINGTON — U.S. and British ships and submarines launched the first phase of a missile assault on Libyan air defenses, firing 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles Saturday at more than 20 coastal targets to clear the way for air patrols to ground Libya's air force.

In announcing the mission during a visit to Brazil, President Barack Obama said he was reluctant to resort to force but was convinced it was necessary to save the lives of civilians. He reiterated that he would not send American ground troops to Libya.
"We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy," he said in Brasilia.

It was clear the U.S. intended to limit its role in the Libya intervention, focusing first on disabling or otherwise silencing Libyan air defenses, and then leaving it to European and perhaps Arab countries to enforce a no-fly zone over the North African nation.
Navy Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff, told reporters the cruise missile assault was the "leading edge" of a coalition campaign dubbed Operation Odyssey Dawn. Its aim: prevent Moammar Gadhafi's forces from inflicting more violence on civilians -- particularly in and around the rebel stronghold of Benghazi -- and degrading the Libyan military's ability to contest a no-fly zone.

A chief target of Saturday's cruise missile attack was Libya's SA-5 surface-to-air missiles, which are considered a moderate threat to some allied aircraft. Libya's overall air defenses are based on older Soviet technology but Gortney called them capable and a potential threat to allied aircraft.
Also targeted: early warning radars and unspecified communications facilities, Gortney said. The U.S. military has extensive recent experience in such combat missions; U.S. Air Force and Navy aircraft repeatedly attacked Iraq's air defenses during the 1990s while enforcing a no-fly zone over Iraq's Kurdish north.
Cruise missiles are the weapon of first choice in such campaigns; they do not put pilots at risk, and they use navigational technologies that provide good precision.
The first Tomahawk cruise missiles struck at 3 p.m. EDT, Gortney said, after a one-hour flight from the U.S. and British vessels on station in the Mediterranean.
The U.S. has at least 11 naval vessels in the Mediterranean, including three submarines, two destroyers, two amphibious warfare ships and the USS Mount Whitney, a command-and-control vessel that is the flagship of the Navy's 6th Fleet. Also in the area are Navy P-3 and EP-3 surveillance aircraft, officials said.
Gortney said it would take as long as 12 hours to assess the effectiveness of Saturday's strikes. Then a high-altitude Global Hawk unmanned surveillance plane would overfly the target areas to get a more precise view, the admiral said. He would not say how long the attacks on Libyan air defenses would last, but he stressed that Saturday's assault with cruise missiles was the first phase of a multi-stage mission.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was scheduled to fly to Russia on Saturday afternoon to begin a week-long overseas trip, postponed his departure for 24 hours. Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Gates decided he should remain in Washington to monitor developments in Libya at the outset of U.S. strikes.
Gates had been skeptical of getting involved in Libya's civil war, telling Congress earlier this month that taking out Libya's air defenses was tantamount to war. Others have worried that the mission could put the U.S. on a slippery slope to deeper involvement in yet another Muslim country — on top of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hours after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton attended an international conference in Paris that endorsed military action against Gadhafi, the U.S. and Britain kicked off their attacks.
At a news conference in Paris, Clinton said Gadhafi had left the world no choice but to intervene urgently and forcefully to protect further loss of civilian life.
"We have every reason to fear that, left unchecked, Gadhafi would commit unspeakable atrocities," she told reporters.
Clinton said there was no evidence that Gadhafi's forces were respecting an alleged cease-fire they proclaimed and the time for action was now.
"Our assessment is that the aggressive action by Gadhafi's forces continues in many parts of the country," she said. "We have seen no real effort on the part of the Gadhafi forces to abide by a cease-fire."
Among the U.S. Navy ships in the Mediterranean were two guided-missile destroyers, the USS Barry and USS Stout, as well as two amphibious warships, the USS Kearsarge and USS Ponce, and a command-and-control ship, the USS Mount Whitney. The submarine USS Providence was also in the Mediterranean.