U.S., French and British forces blasted Libyan air defenses and armor, drawing intense volleys of tracer and antiaircraft fire over Tripoli early Sunday at the start of a campaign aimed at protecting rebel-held areas that will severely test Moammar Kadafi’s powers of survival.
French fighter jets and U.S. and British warships, firing more than 110 cruise missiles from the Mediterranean Sea, struck multiple military targets. The assault cheered the rebels, who had seized control of large areas of Libya as they sought to build on months of discontent across the Arab world but in recent days found themselves retreating in the face of Kadafi’s superior firepower.
Libyan officials accused international forces of hitting a hospital and other civilian targets. The armed forces said in a statement that 48 people had been killed in the strikes and 150 injured. Kadafi declared he was willing to die defending Libya, and in a statement broadcast hours after the attacks began, condemned what he called “flagrant military aggression.” He vowed to strike civilian and military targets in the Mediterranean.
A nighttime gathering of supporters at Kadafi’s compound in Tripoli evaporated when word began circulating of missile strikes in the capital. The thud of cruise missile explosions gave way to deafening barrages of antiaircraft fire that lighted up the sky.
Both Kadafi and his international foes, who began their campaign less than two days after the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution demanding Libyan forces pull back from rebel-held areas, positioned themselves for an end game that focused on whether the long-time leader would remain in power.
U.S. officials acknowledged that they were seeking to oust Kadafi, but also that they did not have a clear path to do so. For now, said a senior administration official, the military strategy was aimed at driving Kadafi’s forces into retreat and protecting civilians.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said Washington and its allies also were committed to using nonmilitary means to force Kadafi out, including steps intended to cripple the Libyan economy and isolate him diplomatically.
Yet the limited advance planning put the Obama administration and its allies at risk of falling into a protracted standoff in which Kadafi controls part of the country and the rebels another. U.S. officials have warned in recent weeks that a large ungoverned expanse could become a haven for terrorists.
Seeking to rally regional opinion to his side, the Libyan leader cast the military campaign as another example of Western colonialism and a Christian “crusader” mentality toward the predominantly Muslim countries of the Middle East — an effort likely to be hampered by Kadafi’s long history of meddling in neighbors’ affairs.
France initiated the military action Saturday, launching attacks on Libyan government armored vehicles near Benghazi after an emergency meeting of U.S., European and Middle East leaders in Paris. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said his country and its partners were determined to stop Kadafi’s “killing frenzy.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who represented the United States in Paris, said that despite his promises of a cease-fire, made after the U.N. resolution, Kadafi’s forces had continued their attacks. “We have every reason to fear that, left unchecked, Kadafi will commit unspeakable atrocities,” she said.
Clinton said that in addition to France and Britain, 12 European countries and Turkey would take part in the campaign.
The military campaign put France and many of its allies in an awkward position. Through most of his four decades in power, Kadafi has been an international pariah accused of fomenting terrorism — including the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
But in 2003, Libya announced it was giving up a covert nuclear program. In 2006, the United States reestablished diplomatic relations. The next year, Libya gained a rotating seat on the Security Council and Kadafi made a highly publicized visit to Paris. Western countries scrambled for a share of Libya’s oil wealth.
Kadafi now is trying to withstand a wave of unrest that has gripped North Africa and the Middle East. The strongmen who for decades ruled his neighbors, Tunisia to the west and Egypt to his east, have been swept away by people power. As the uprising grew, Kadafi quickly lost control of much of eastern Libya, where many have long been opposed to his rule, and a number of cities in his western stronghold also rebelled.
The Libyan leader resorted to ground attacks and airstrikes against the rebels’ ragtag militias, regaining territory but drawing international ire and hurting his effort to portray himself as a victim of Western interference. And his poor relations with many countries in the region may also be coming back to haunt him.
Lebanon, which severed formal ties with Tripoli over the 1978 disappearance of a popular Shiite Muslim cleric while on a trip to Libya, introduced the U.N. resolution that authorized the air strikes. The Arab League booted Libya from its ranks over its attacks on government opponents and endorsed the imposition of a no-fly zone. Even Iran, a sharp critic of Western intervention in the Muslim world, has remained silent.
With the United States still engaged militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama said U.S. forces would play a limited role in the campaign. But the U.S. will have to lead the operation in its early days because it has the greatest capability to destroy Kadafi’s air defenses, a key prerequisite to establishing control over Libya’s airspace, the Pentagon said.
The U.S. goal is to finish that job “in days, not weeks,” said a senior administration official. The U.S. would fly Global Hawk drone aircraft over the area to confirm that antiaircraft batteries have been taken out, and then other countries, including France, Britain and Arab states, will enforce the no-fly zone, U.S. officials said.
Missile strikes Saturday targeted surface-to-air missile sites and radar detectors that are part of the Libyan military’s air defense infrastructure, said Vice Admiral William E. Gortney, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. Libyan air defenses use older Soviet-era technology similar to what U.S. warplanes faced in Iraq, he said.
Eleven U.S. ships in the Mediterranean are part of the operation, joining 11 from Italy, one Canadian ship and one British submarine. Officials would not specify the total number of planes being flown in the operation, but the United States is flying at least four signal-jamming aircraft.
The U.S. had identified sites along the coast of Libya, including around Tripoli and the city of Misurata, the Pentagon said.
In Misurata, a rebel-held city in western Libya, a doctor said international forces had struck the airport, where Kadafi’s troops had massed, silencing artillery that had been hitting the city for the last four days. An amateur video said to be taken in Misurata, showed explosions in the distance and men crying out joyously, “God is great!”
Earlier, opposition leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil in Benghazi, the rebels’ de facto capital, told Al Jazeera that the city was under attack by Kadafi’s tanks and artillery, and that frightened families were jamming the roads toward the Egyptian border, seeking to escape the violence.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that Kadafi had ‘multiple tens” of combat aircraft capable of flying missions, and that they had been completing about 10 sorties a day.
Daragahi reported from Tripoli and Bennett from Washington Times staff writers Paul Richter in Washington, Peter Nicholas in Brasilia, Brazil, and special correspondent Kim Willsher in Paris contributed to this report.