An international coalition launched its first strikes on Libya on Saturday to destroy the country’s air and missile defense systems and prevent further attacks by the Libyan government on its citizens and rebels in and around the rebel-held city of Benghazi, a senior U.S. military official said.
More than two dozen warships and a large number of war planes from several countries made up the initial strike force, which was led by the U.S. military’s Africa command, the military official said. The first wave included sea-launched U.S. cruise missiles and the deployment of U.S. electronic warfare aircraft.
“The key first strikes would be on the coast because that is where the integrated air and missile defense systems,” the official said in an embargoed briefing a few hours before the operation began.
The air defense sites being targeted in the initial salvo are located primarily around Tripoli, Misurata and an area between Misurata and Benghazi. The strikes were designed to open up the skies over Libya to other coalition aircraft that would seek to safeguard the opposition forces, which have been under siege by Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s military.
The strikes came as Gaddafi’s forces pushed into Benghazi, where the opposition forces were making a final stand.
The United States, which has been reluctant to lead the operation, would quickly turn over control to its international partners after the opening salvos to destroy Libyan air defenses. Washington needed to take on a leadership role in the initial attacks because of its “unique” capabilities, such as its cruise missiles and its ability to use electronic warfare aircraft to destroy and degrade Libyan radar and communications, the senior military official said.
“The U.S. will be at the front end of this . . . providing the unique capabilities that the U.S. military has both in capability and capacity,” the senior military official said.
The attacks could focus on those elements of Gaddafi’s ground forces that control the country’s integrated air defense capabilities, and would be carried out by U.S. Navy destroyers and submarines patrolling in the area. “When this commences, we’ll have American forces and airplanes involved,” the senior military official said. “We are going to target that part of the integrated air and missile defense system that we are most concerned about.”
In Libya, Gaddafi supporters gathered at airports and outside Gaddafi’s home in Tripoli in a display of devotion and as an apparent attempt to act as “human shields” to deter military strikes.
Thousands of people dressed in green and waving Gaddafi’s portrait swarmed into the normally off-limits Bab al-Aziziya, the walled and guarded compound on the outskirts of Tripoli where Gaddafi lives and that tas targeted by a U.S. airstrike in 1986. Gathered in front of the shell of Gaddafi’s bombed-out house, which he has preserved as a monument to the attack, they chanted slogans of praise and professed their willingness to die with him in any attacks on Libya.
“I’m not scared because I am here with my leader,” said Azoum al-Mishai, 30, a school teacher who was among the crowd.
Libyan state television showed crowds also gathering on the runways of two regional airports, in Sirte and Sabha, and in the terminal of Tripoli’s international airport, after reports that airport runways would be among the first targets.
The launching of the broader military campaign came hours after French fighter jets flew into Libya to begin carving out a no-fly zone over Benghazi. More than 20 warplanes patrolled a 600-mile area over Benghazi, destroying at least one Libyan vehicle near the rebel stronghold in eastern Libya.
A French military spokesman confirmed the attack on units loyal to Gaddafi in an attempt to ward off an apparent effort by the Libyan army to quickly crush the opposition before foreign forces could intervene.
“A first target was engaged and destroyed,” the spokesman said
The first shots fired in the U.N.-backed campaign came as leaders of 22 nations gathered in Paris to plan strategy for the air campaign. French President Nicolas Sarkozy confirmed in a televised address that French warplanes had entered Libyan airspace to prevent Gaddafi’s “murderous madness” against Libyan civilians.
“Today we are intervening in Libya with a U.N. Security Council mandate,” Sarkozy said.
The rapid deployment of warplanes came as Gaddafi appeared to defy U.N. demands for a cease-fire by escalating attacks against rebels dug in around Benghazi, a city of about 1 million people and the largest remaining opposition stronghold.
Sarkozy spoke at the close of an emergency meeting in Paris that was described as an effort to project international unity and resolve against Gaddafi. U.S. officials had said that the meeting in Paris, which drew leaders from 22 countries, among them Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, would focus on developments in Libya and the next steps to take.
An administration official, speaking shortly before the news broke about the French intervention, said all the leaders recognized the urgency of the situation in eastern Libya.
“We’ve made clear what our expectations are, and we have also made clear that the international community is prepared to act if he doesn’t meet those expectations,” the official said.
Forces loyal to Gaddafi entered the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi early in the day after shelling and fierce fighting, a fresh act of defiance of U.N. calls for a cease-fire. Government troops in tanks and trucks entered Benghazi from the southwest, in the university area, and began to shell the city, including civilian areas. Intense fighting broke out in some enclaves. The city quickly became a ghost town, with residents fleeing or seeking cover in barricaded neighborhoods.
A warplane crashed down over Benghazi, and rebel leaders later claimed it as one of theirs. Although they said mechanical problems caused the crash, calls from mosques across the city suggested that friendly fire brought down the plane. “Don’t attack the airplanes, because these are our planes,” a mosque preacher urged over loudspeakers.
President Obama, speaking at an appearance in Brasilia with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, reiterated his call for the Libyan government to stop attacking rebels or face military action.
“Our resolve is clear: The people of Libya must be protected,” Obama said in brief remarks after a meeting with Rousseff. He did not take questions.
Earlier, in what appeared to be a desperate attempt to avert military action, Gaddafi had sent two letters to international leaders — a warm, conciliatory one to Obama and a sharply worded, threatening one to the United Nations, France and Britain.
To Obama, he wrote: “If Libya and the US enter into a war you will always remain my son, and I have love for you.” Libya is battling al-Qaeda, he said, seeking Obama’s advice. “How would you behave so that I can follow your example?” he asked.
In the other letter, addressed to the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the leaders of France and Britain, he warned that the entire region would be destabilized if they pursued strikes against Libya. “You will regret it if you take a step to intervene in our internal affairs,” he wrote.