The U.S. military attacked Moammar Gadhafi’s air defenses Saturday with strikes along the Libyan coast that were launched by Navy vessels in the Mediterranean.
A senior military official said the assault would unfold in stages and target air defense installations around Tripoli, the capital, and a coastal area south of Benghazi, the rebel stronghold under attack by Gadhafi’s forces.
Complete details were not immediately available.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive military operations.
Hours after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended an international conference in Paris that endorsed military action against Gadhafi, the U.S. kicked off its attacks on Libyan air defense missile and radar sites along the Mediterranean coast to protect no-fly zone pilots from the threat of getting shot down.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive military operations, said the Obama administration intended to limit its involvement — at least in the initial stages — to helping protect French and other air missions.
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.”
President Barack Obama announced on Friday that he had given the go-ahead for U.S. forces to participate in operations designed to enforce the provisions of a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that Gadhafi cease firing on civilians. At the outset of a visit to Brazil on Saturday, he spoke briefly about Libya, noting the Paris talks.
“Our consensus was strong and our resolve is clear,” 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 to act with urgency.”
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.
Earlier Saturday, the rebel-held stronghold of Benghazi came under heavy bombardment by loyalist forces, despite Gadhafi’s claim that he was honoring a cease-fire. In response, French warplanes began attacking selected targets in Libya
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the allied nations would use “all means necessary, particularly military” to enforce the U.N. mandate.
The French leader said the military action was being taken “to protect the civilian population” from the “deadly madness of a regime which, by killing its own people, has lost any legitimacy.”
He said that Gadhafi “still could avoid the worst” by complying with the requirements of the international community.
“The door of diplomacy will open when the fighting stops,” he said.
“The future of Libya belongs to the Libyans,” Sarkozy said, adding that the intervention was taking place because of “a universal conscience that cannot tolerate such crimes.”
Canadian, Italian, Danish and Norwegian planes were also participating in the operation, working out of military bases around the Mediterranean region. However, it was still unclear what role Arab nations would play.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement Saturday that it given the situation on the ground in Libya, “it is imperative that we continue to act with speed and decision.”
In an open letter read out hours before the announcement, Gadhafi had a warning: “You will regret it if you dare to intervene in our country.”
Fighting In Benghazi
Earlier Saturday, a plane was shot down over the outskirts of Benghazi, sending up a massive black cloud of smoke.
But it was not immediately clear whether the warplane belonged to loyalist or rebel forces.
“If it did indeed belong to the Libyan government … it would be another sign that [Gadhafi] is in open defiance of the world right now,” NPR’s David Greene said, reporting from Tripoli.
But rebels told NPR the plane was theirs and that it had been shot down by loyalist forces as it tried to defend the city. Opposition forces are known to have obtained at least some aircraft from pilots who defected from the Libyan air force in the opening days of the conflict.
Witnesses said Benghazi was hit by artillery and mortar fire and an explosion was reported near the rebel headquarters. The Red Cross and other aid groups said there was a sharp increase in the number of civilians trying to leave the city.
Rebel leaders fighting to push Gadhafi from power also said cities such as Misrata and Ajdabiya were still being shelled. A Pentagon official told NPR that the U.S. saw surveillance suggesting Libya’s military was still active, firing on areas around the eastern city.
Libya Denies Attacks
Government spokesman Ibrahim Musa denied that a government plane had gone down. He also denied government forces shelled any Libyan towns on Saturday, saying the rebels were the ones breaking the cease-fire by attacking military forces.
“Our armed forces continue to retreat and hide, but the rebels keep shelling us and provoking us,” Musa told The Associated Press.
Musa also said the planned U.N. Security Council embargo of Libya’s military airspace was “invalid” because, he said, “the Security Council is not authorized according to the U.N. Charter to intervene in the internal affairs of any country.”
“This is injustice, it’s a clear aggression and there’s an uncalculated risk for its consequences on the Mediterranean and for Europe,” Musa said.
A Quick End To Weeks Of Debate
In a joint statement to Gadhafi late Friday, the U.S., Britain and France — backed by unspecified Arab countries — said a cease-fire must begin “immediately” in Libya, the French presidential palace said.
The statement urged 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, and said Libyans must be able to receive humanitarian aid or the “international community will make him suffer the consequences” with military action.
The statement followed a U.N. Security Council resolution offering protection to Libya’s citizens late Thursday with the backing of the United States, France and Britain — hours after Gadhafi vowed to launch a final assault and crush the nearly five-week-old rebellion against him.
Western powers faced pressure to act urgently after weeks spent deliberating over what to do about Gadhafi as his regime gained momentum.
“Things really came together quickly at the end,” said NPR’s Greene said. “There was a sense for days that this might never happen, the debate might continue.
“All sides said the support from the Arab League and potentially the willingness of Arab countries to take part in this lent that final needed support to push this through,” he said.
Rebel Forces Falling Back
The shift toward international action reflected dramatic change on the ground in Libya in the past week. The rebels, once confident, found themselves in danger of being crushed by an overpowering pro-Gadhafi force using rockets, artillery, tanks and warplanes. That force has advanced along the Mediterranean coast aiming to recapture the rebel-held eastern half of Libya.
The rebellion began Feb. 15 in Benghazi and spread east to Tripoli. Like other uprisings in North Africa and the Mideast, Libya’s protest started with popular demonstrations against its leader, rejecting Gadhafi’s four decades of despotic and often brutal rule. The tone quickly changed after the regime’s security in Tripoli forcefully put down the gatherings there.
Opposition forces began arming themselves and quickly seized control of the country’s east, basing themselves in Benghazi, which is Libya’s second-largest city and has a population of about 700,000. Some Libyan army units joined the rebels, providing them with needed firepower, but much less than Gadhafi’s remaining forces and, crucially, no air power.
There are no official death tolls. Rebels say more than 1,000 people have been killed in a month of fighting, while Gadhafi claims the toll is only 150.
With reporting from NPR’s Eric Westervelt in Tobruk, David Greene in Tripoli, Eleanor Beardsley in Paris and Phillip Reeve in London and Alan Greenblatt. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.
(www.npr.org / 19.03.2011)