libya - AFP - March 20 2011
A Libyan jet bomber crashing after being shot down by rebel forces in Benghazi, Libya, a few hours before Western forces launched their attack on Gadhafi’s regime. Photo by AFP
Text size

The joint forces of several Western nations launched an attack yesterday against Libyan ruler Muammar Gadhafi.

The Pentagon said last night that in the early stages of the operation, codenamed Odyssey Dawn, more than 100 Tomahawk missiles were fired at anti-aircraft defenses of the Libyan military by both American and British forces. Earlier, French fighter jets attacked targets near rebel stronghold Benghazi, with the France announcing one military vehicle had been hit and Al Jazeera reporting the French jets have destroyed four Libyan tanks.

Libyan state television reported Western forces were attacking fuel reservoirs.

The French and American forces are part of a military coalition that includes NATO, Italy, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Canada, and is the first international attack on an Arab state since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The move enjoys the support of several Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco.

Moments before the Western attack, the Gadhafi forces launched a concentrated assault on Benghazi, pushing tanks into the western part of the city. Eyewitnesses told reporters the city was being shelled with missiles and artillery, with smoke clearly visible in several areas. Others reported Gadhafi was once again using African mercenaries, who infiltrated the city in civilian clothes.

Meanwhile, many residents of Benghazi were fleeing the city, with long convoys reportedly moving east, toward the Egyptian border.

The head of the rebels' National Council, Moustaffa Abed al-Jalil, told Al Jazeera yesterday the international community was extremely late in its response to Gadhafi's assault on Libyan civilans. He called on the world community to stop what he described as the destruction of civilians.

Libya's capital Tripoli, still largely loyal to Gadhafi, saw hundreds of supporters rallying around his headquarters in the city. They said they were willing to die for him if the headquarters came under attack. Similar scenes were seen at Tripoli's airport, and the Gadhafi loyalists may have been trying to create human shields around strategically important objects to prevent their bombardment.

The move against Libya was given the go-ahead by a United Nations Security Council resolution approved in the early hours of Friday, calling for necessary steps to protect civilians and populated areas. The relatively vague language of the resolution, which did not limit the military action to maintaining a no-fly zone over Libya, led the Libyan Foreign Minister, Mousa Kousa, to declare a ceasefire as early as Friday noon.

On Friday evening, as Libyan army forces continued moving toward Benghazi, U.S. President Barack Obama issued an ultimatum to Gadhafi, calling on the Libyan ruler to withdraw his forces from rebel cities taken in recent weeks, restore water, gas and electricity supply to all parts of the country and allow humanitarian aid through to his citizens - or face military action. He said the Libyan ruler had lost his legitimacy and the trust of his people, adding that the conditions were non-negotiable.

By Friday night, it became clear the Libyan government had no intention of honoring its own cease-fire declaration or Obama's ultimatum. The military once again began shelling rebel cities, killing, according to a local hospital, 20 people in Benghazi alone. The National Council building in the city, which houses the rebel leadership, was also shelled.

Yesterday, an emergency meeting on Libya was held in Paris, attended by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, Arab League Secretary Amr Moussa, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, as well as foreign ministers and envoys from Canada, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Morocco and Iraq.

At the end of the meeting, Sarkozy told reporters that the French air force will resist any aggression by Colonel Gadhafi against the Benghazi population. "As of this moment, our aircrafts are stopping airplanes from attacking the city," the French president said. "Our aircrafts are also ready to intervene against tanks." Several hours later, international media reported on the coalition's first sorties.

A senior NATO official told the New York Times yesterday that France's first aerial sorties took place before the conference in Paris ended, a revelation which brought protests from some of the delegates. The Russian Federation, which abstained in the Security Council vote on Libya, said in response the military action was "regrettable."