Breaking news update: U.S. launches missile strike on Libyan air defenses, Pentagon says. --AP (12:29 p.m.)
French President Nicolas Sarkozy signaled the start of military action against Libya Saturday after an emergency summit in Paris of world powers.
Jets from an international force were flying missions over Libya, hours after Moammar Kadafi dispatched troops, tanks and warplanes to the heart of the 5-week-old uprising against his rule in a decisive strike on the first city seized by rebels.
Sarkozy said France and its partners were determined to halt Kadafi’s “killing frenzy.”
“We will oppose any aggression by Col. Kadafi against the population of Benghazi. Already our planes are stopping attacks on the town. As of now other French planes are ready to intervene against tanks and armored vehicles threatening unarmed civilians,” Sarkozy said.
A French fighter jet fired Saturday on a Libyan military vehicle in the first offensive military action against Kadafi’s troops since the U.N. Security Council approved a resolution on Thursday authorizing operations to protect civilians in Libya.
French Defense Ministry spokesman Thierry Burkhard says the target was confirmed as a military vehicle, but it was not clear what kind. He said no hostile fire on the French jet has been reported.
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.
France sent a dozen Mirage and Rafale jets Saturday to survey the onetime opposition stronghold of Benghazi and the 90-by-60-mile no-fly zone, Burkhard said.
The strike came less than two hours after top officials from the United States, Europe and the Arab world agreed in Paris to launch a risky military operation to protect civilians from attacks by Kadafi’s forces.
It also came after Libyan government troops forces attacked Benghazi earlier Saturday, apparently ignoring a proclaimed cease-fire.
The United States, Britain, France and 19 other participants in an emergency summit in Paris on Saturday “agreed to put in place all the means necessary, in particular military” to make Gadhafi respect a U.N. Security Council resolution Thursday demanding a cease-fire, Sarkozy said.
The president spoke after a top-level crisis meeting in Paris following the passing of United Nations Resolution 1973 approving military action against Libya in support of rebel forces opposed to Kadafi.
Key leaders from Europe, the U.S., the Arab League and several Middle Eastern countries, including Jordan and Qatar, presented an unusually united front.
Sarkozy said the summit had agreed to demand and enforce an “immediate cease-fire” in Libya and said the countries present at the summit were prepared to use “all means, particularly military means,” to enforce this.
He added they had a duty to help countries in the Arab world seeking to “liberate themselves from servitude” and Libya’s population “must not be deprived of its rights by violence and terror.”
He said: “Libyans wanting nothing else but the right to decide their own future find themselves in danger of death. We have a duty to respond to their anguished call.
“There is still time for Col. Kadafi to avoid the worst if he heeds the demands of the international community.”
In Benghazi, crashing shells shook buildings, and the sounds of battle drew closer to the center of the town, where a doctor said 27 bodies were brought to the hospital by midday. By late in the day, warplanes could be heard overhead.
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.
At a news conference in the capital, Tripoli, the government spokesman read letters from Kadafi to President 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.
Willsher is a special correspondent for The Times reporting from Paris.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.