Benghazi: French fighter jets soared over a rebel-held city besieged by Moammar Gaddafi’s troops on Saturday, the first mission for an international military force launched in support of the 5-week-old uprising.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said after an emergency summit in Paris that French jets were already targeting Gaddafi’s forces. The 22 participants in Saturday’s summit “agreed to put in place all the means necessary, in particular military” to make Gaddafi respect a UN Security Council resolution Thursday demanding a cease-fire, Sarkozy said.
Gaddafi had tried to take advantage of the time lag between the UN resolution and the launch of the international operation, making a decisive strike on the Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city and the first major stronghold of the rebellion. Crashing shells shook buildings, and the sounds of battle drew closer to the city center as its residents despaired. A doctor said 27 bodies had reached hospitals by midday. By late in the day, warplanes could be heard overhead and the shelling had stopped.
“Our planes are blocking the air attacks on the city” of Benghazi, he said, without elaborating. After the announcement, scattered cheers went up from rebels in the city.
In an open letter, Gaddafi warned: “You will regret it if you dare to intervene in our country.”
Libyan state television showed Gaddafi supporters converging on the international airport and a military garrison in Tripoli, and the airport in Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, in an apparent attempt to deter bombing.
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.
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. But at Jalaa hospital, where the tile floors and walls were stained with blood, the toll was clear.
“There are more dead than injured,” said Dr. Ahmed Radwan, an Egyptian who had been there helping for three weeks.
Jalaa’s Dr Gebreil Hewadi, a member of the rebel health committee, said city hospitals had received 27 bodies.
At a news conference in the capital, Tripoli, the government spokesman read letters from Gaddafi to President Barack 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 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.
To Obama, the Libyan leader was slightly more conciliatory: “If you had found them taking over American cities with armed force, tell me what you would do.”
In a joint statement to Gaddafi late on Friday, the United States, Britain and France – backed by unspecified Arab countries – called on Gaddafi to end his troops’ advance toward Benghazi and pull them out of the cities of Misrata, Ajdabiya and Zawiya. It also called for the restoration of water, electricity and gas services in all areas. It said Libyans must be able to receive humanitarian aid or the “international community will make him suffer the consequences” with military action.
Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa said that Libyan officials had informed the UN and the Security Council that the government was holding to the cease-fire it had announced Friday and called for a team of foreign observers to verify that.
“The nation is respecting all the commitments put on it by the international community,” he said, leaving the podium before answering any questions about Benghazi.
In the course of the rebellion, Libya has gone from a once-promising economy with the largest proven oil reserves in Africa to a country in turmoil. The foreign workers that underpinned the oil industry have fled; production and exports have all but ground to a halt; and its currency is down 30 percent in just two weeks.
The oil minister, Shukri Ghanem, held a news conference calling on foreign oil companies to send back their workers. He said the government would honor all its contracts.
“It is not our intention to violate any of these agreements and we hope that from their part they will honor this agreement and they will send back their workforces,” he said.
Italy, which had been the main buyer for Libyan oil, offered the use of seven air and navy bases already housing US, NATO and Italian forces to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya.
Italy’s defense minister, Ignazio La Russa, said Saturday that Italy wasn’t just “renting out” its bases for others to use but was prepared to offer “moderate but determined” military support.
Mirage and Rafale fighter jets flew over Benghazi and could strike Gaddafi’s tanks later Saturday, a senior French official told The Associated Press.
The official said the jets are flying over the opposition stronghold and its surroundings. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operation.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said after the summit: “The time for action has come, it needs to be urgent.”