Western air strikes pounded Muammar Gaddafi’s defenses and allied warplanes patrolled Libyan skies Sunday, lifting the siege of Benghazi and allowing rebels to surge forward and retake lost ground.
The aerial assault stopped in its tracks the advance by Gaddafi’s troops into Benghazi and left the burned and shattered remains of his tanks and troop carriers littering the main road outside the rebel stronghold. The charred bodies of at least 14 government soldiers lay scattered in the desert. “Gaddafi is like a chicken and the coalition is plucking his feathers so he can’t fly. The revolutionaries will slit his neck,” said Fathi Bin Saud, a 52-year-old rebel carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, surveying the wreckage.
Gaddafi said the raids amounted to terrorism and vowed to fight to the death. “We will not leave our land and we will liberate it,” he said on state television. “We will remain alive and you will all die.”
A Libyan government health official said the death toll from the Western air strikes had risen to 64 Sunday after some of the wounded died. But it was impossible to independently verify the reports as government minders refused to take Western reporters in the capital Tripoli to the site of the bombings.
“Operations yesterday went very well,” the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, told NBC. “He (Gaddafi) hasn’t had aircraft … flying the last couple days. So effectively that no-fly zone has been put in place.”
French planes fired the first shots Saturday, destroying tanks and armoured vehicles near Benghazi in a United Nations-endorsed intervention to force Gaddafi’s troops to cease fire and end attacks on civilians who launched an uprising last month against his 41-year rule.
France sent an aircraft carrier toward Libya and its planes were over the country again Sunday, defense officials said. Britain said its planes had targeted Libya’s air defenses mainly around the capital Tripoli.
On the main road south from Benghazi, some 14 government tanks, 20 troop carriers, two trucks with multiple rocket launchers and dozens of pick-ups were all destroyed. Some still smoldered. Fourteen bodies lay next to the vehicles, though the scale of the bombardment made identifying bodies difficult as tyres burned and munitions exploded in the flames.
U.S. and British warships and submarines launched 110 Tomahawk missiles overnight against air defenses around the capital Tripoli and the western city of Misrata, which has been besieged by Gaddafi’s forces, U.S. military officials said. They said U.S. forces and planes were working with Britain, France, Canada and Italy in operation “Odyssey Dawn.” Denmark said it had four fighter planes ready to join in Sunday and was awaiting U.S. instructions.
It was the biggest Western military intervention in the Arab world since the invasion of Iraq began exactly eight years ago. Gaddafi said all Libyans had now been armed to defend the country and Western defeat was inevitable. Libya’s state news agency said more than a million men and women would be armed. China and Russia, which abstained in the U.N. Security Council vote last week endorsing intervention, expressed regret at the military action. China’s Foreign Ministry said it hoped the conflict would not lead to a greater loss of civilian life.
Explosions and heavy anti-aircraft fire rattled Tripoli in the early hours of Sunday. Defiant cries of “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greatest) echoed around the city center. Libyan state television showed footage from an unidentified hospital of what it called victims of the “colonial enemy.” Ten bodies were wrapped up in white and blue bed sheets, and several people were wounded, one of them badly, the television said. The mood in Tripoli turned markedly anti-Western, and crowds shouted defiant slogans and shot in the air.
Tripoli residents said they had heard an explosion near the eastern Tajoura district, while in Misrata they said strikes had targeted an airbase used by Gaddafi’s forces. Gaddafi’s troops were still surrounding Misrata Sunday, a resident said, and government snipers were posted on rooftops in the city center. “They seem to be ready to fire at anything that moves,” the resident, named Mohammed, told Reuters.
The Western intervention, after weeks of diplomatic wrangling, was welcomed in Benghazi with a mix of apprehension and relief. “We think this will end Gaddafi’s rule. Libyans will never forget France’s stand with them. If it weren’t for them, then Benghazi would have been overrun tonight,” said Iyad Ali, 37. “We salute France, Britain, the United States and the Arab countries for standing with Libya. But we think Gaddafi will take out his anger on civilians. So the West has to hit him hard,” said civil servant Khalid al-Ghurfaly, 38.
Benghazi’s main hospital was filled with men, women and children wounded in Saturday’s assault on the city by Gaddafi’s forces. There were 24 bodies, including eight government troops, visible in the morgue, and more were stored in refrigerators.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the allies had agreed to use “all necessary means, especially military” to enforce the Security Council resolution for an end to attacks on civilians. Some analysts have questioned the strategy for the military intervention, fearing Western forces might be sucked into a long civil war despite a U.S. insistence, repeated Saturday, that it has no plans to send ground troops into Libya.
AU, ARAB LEAGUE RESPONSE
A panel of heads of state asked by the African Union to find solutions to the Libyan crisis on Sunday called for an end to hostilities, a day after Western powers began bombing Muammar Gaddafi’s forces.
The panel of five heads of state including the presidents of South Africa, Mali, Mauritania, Congo and Uganda, in a statement after meeting in the Mauritanian capital on Saturday, called on both Libyan parties to end all hostilities immediately but made no direct mention of the Western military campaign.
European and U.S. forces on Saturday unleashed warplanes and cruise missiles against troops loyal to Gaddafi following a U.N. Security Council resolution authorising the use of all necessary means to end attacks on civilians. Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, chairing the AU panel meeting, rejected any form of military intervention in the Libyan crisis.
“We need urgent action for an African solution to this very serious crisis in our brother country,” he said in his opening remarks. “This solution must adhere to the value we place in respecting territorial unity and integrity, as well as the rejection of all foreign military intervention, whatever form it takes.”
The panel asked the African Union to convene a meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Friday March 25. The meeting will bring together representatives of the Arab League, the OIC, EU and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council as well as Libyan parties to find a solution to the crisis, the statement said.
The Arab League chief said on Sunday that Arabs did not want military strikes by Western powers that hit civilians when the League called for a no-fly zone over Libya. In comments carried by Egypt’s official state news agency, Secretary-General Amr Moussa also said he was calling for an emergency Arab League meeting to discuss the situation in the Arab world and particularly Libya.
“What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians,” he said.
Pic:A Libyan government tank – perhaps a T72 – burns after a French air attack.