Libya Hit by Coalition Missiles, Air Raids as Qaddafi Decries ‘Crusaders’
Libya was pummeled by more than 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles in the first phase of an assault by international forces intent on protecting civilians from attack by their leader Muammar Qaddafi and his loyalists.
French fighter jets hit a Libyan armored vehicle and four tanks yesterday in the first volley of “Operation Odyssey Dawn.” The mission involves a coalition of nations, including the U.S., U.K., France, Canada and Italy, and aims to create a no-fly zone over the North African nation.
As many as 25 vessels, including the USS Mount Whitney command vessel, were coordinated to weaken Libya’s command-and- control capability, U.S. Vice Admiral William Gortley said in Washington. The events, which continued through the night in Libya, were the first in a “multiphase” operation meant to “shape the battle space,” he said.
Qaddafi, speaking on state-run Libyan television, said his regime was distributing weapons to supporters and called on Libyans to defend themselves against “crusaders.” The Mediterranean is a “battleground” and Libyan forces did “nothing to justify” the attacks, he said.
The Libyan revolt is the bloodiest of popular uprisings in the Middle East this year that have toppled Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. There have also been anti-government demonstrations in Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Syria, Algeria, Iran, Iraq and Oman, calling for democracy and improved living standards.
Libya’s crude oil exports may be halted for “many months” because of damage to facilities and international sanctions, the International Energy Agency said March 15. Crude oil for April delivery slipped 9 cents to $101.07 a barrel this week on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The conflict, which has left hundreds dead, has sent futures up about 23 percent from a year ago.
Gortley said more than 20 targets -- including four airfields in Tripoli and air-defense sites in the east -- were the focus of the first-day of attacks. While he didn’t set a deadline for when the no-fly zone would be clear, he said that the success of the operation may take days to verify.
Libyan state television said 48 people were killed by the air strikes and 150 injured.
Gortley said the assault was supported by Western and Arab nations, while declining to name all involved. Other countries “will announce their own involvement,” he said. The attack began at about 3 p.m. local time and didn’t involve U.S. aircraft traveling overland, he said.
“If Qaddafi’s forces begin to roll back and the rebels advance, then potentially that is a process that could drive Qaddafi from power,” Anthony Cordesman, senior defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in a telephone interview.
Libyan official Mohammed al-Zewi told reporters in Tripoli that the attack was “barbaric aggression,” and civilians were injured and needed hospital care. Al-Zewi identified himself as chairman of the Libyan National Public Conference.
The coalition struck after European, U.S. and Arab officials gathered in Paris yesterday to discuss Libya and the continuing attacks by government forces on civilians. Even as they met, Qaddafi’s forces attacked the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in defiance of their pledge and international demands for a cease-fire, television stations reported.
Just before news about the deployment of coalition forces broke, French President Nicolas Sarkozy issued a warning to the Libyan regime. “French planes are ready to act against armored vehicles that would be threatening unarmed civilians,” he told reporters.
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in coordinated statements from Brazil and Paris, also said the U.S. was ready to help with “the effective implementation” of a United Nations-authorized no-fly zone.
“This is not an outcome that the United States or any or our partners sought,” Obama said, after authorizing what he called “limited military action” in Libya. Obama added: “We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his own people there will be no mercy.”
The U.S. yesterday told its citizens in Libya they should “depart immediately.”
“No U.S. officials remain in Libya, and our ability to provide assistance to U.S. citizens or other employees of U.S.- based news organizations is severely limited,” Mark Toner, acting deputy State Department spokesman, said in a statement.
‘Time for Action’
“The time for action has come,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said before the Libya attack. It is “vitally important action takes place, urgently.”
The UN Security Council voted March 17 to ground Qaddafi’s air force and to grant military authority to the U.S. and its allies to protect civilians and population centers threatened by his forces.
The UN’s principal policy-making panel voted 10-0, with five abstentions, to adopt a resolution that establishes a no- fly zone over Libya, demands a cease-fire and allows “all necessary measures” to protect civilians “excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.”
Al Jazeera cited the head of the rebel council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, as saying bombing raids took place in Benghazi, which has about 1 million people. There was no indication that Qaddafi followed through on his regime’s pledge to observe UN demands for a cease-fire, a State Department official said.
Al Jazeera, which cited witnesses, said 30 people, many of them civilians, were killed by forces loyal to Qaddafi. Dozens, including some children, were injured, it said.
Arab officials attending the Paris summit included Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, Morocco’s Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri and Qatar Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jasim Al Thani, according to an e-mailed list of the participants.
“We don’t stand against any person, or even the Colonel,” Sheikh Hamad said in an interview with Al Jazeera aired today, referring to Qaddafi. “Stopping the bath of blood, that is the goal.”
Italy’s cabinet approved the use of as many as seven air bases for the operation. British forces launched Tomahawk missiles from a Trafalgar Class submarine and the jets involved in the attacks “flew 3,000 miles from RAF Marham and back making this the longest-range bombing mission conducted by the RAF since the Falklands conflict,” according to a Ministry of Defense statement.
“We should all be confident that what we are doing is in a just cause and in our nation’s interest,” Cameron said.
Libya has about 30 sites with surface-to-air missiles, linked to 15 early warning radar, that pose a “significant threat” to foreign warplanes over or near Libyan airspace, according to information provided by the Pentagon.
Libya has a limited air force, with about 80 percent of its aircraft “non-operational.” Libyan pilot training levels and air combat tactics “have remained far inferior to those of U.S. pilots and well-trained Middle Eastern pilots,” such as those from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, according to the Pentagon.
“The operations will continue in the days to come, until the Libyan regime accepts the UN resolution,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Alain Juppe told France 2 national television in an interview.
Asked if the military operation was meant to remove Qaddafi from power, Juppe said: “No. The plan is to help Libyans choose their future.”
China expressed regret for the military action against Libya, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in a statement. China hopes the situation will stabilize soon, the statement said.
Norway will contribute as many as six F-16s and one Orion plane with crew of about 100 in five to 10 days, officials said. Denmark has sent six F-16s to the U.S. Naval Air Station at Sigonella in Sicily, several of which are likely to take part, according to Danish news agency Ritzau and newspaper Jyllands- Posten.
Qatar plans to take part in the mission to protect Libyan civilians under the UN resolution, the state-run Qatar News Agency said.