BENGHAZI, Libya - French fighter jets fired the first shots at Moammar Gadhafi's troops on Saturday, launching the broadest international military effort since the Iraq war in support of an uprising that had seemed on the verge of defeat.
In the hours before the no-fly zone over Libya went into effect, Gadhafi sent warplanes, tanks and troops into Benghazi, the rebel capital and first city to fall to the rebellion that began Feb. 15. Then the government attacks appeared to go silent.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said after an emergency summit in Paris that French jets were already targeting Gadhafi's forces. The 22 participants in Saturday's summit agreed to do everything necessary to make Gadhafi respect a U.N. Security Council resolution Thursday demanding a cease-fire, Sarkozy said.
"Our consensus was strong, and our resolve is clear. The people of Libya must be protected, and in the absence of an immediate end to the violence against civilians our coalition is prepared to act, and to act with urgency," President Barack Obama said in Brasilia, Brazil, on the first day of a three-country Latin American tour.
The rebels, who have seen their advances into western Libya turn into a series of defeats, said they had hoped for more, sooner from the international community, after a day when crashing shells shook the buildings of Benghazi and Gadhafi's tanks rumbled through the university campus.
"People are disappointed, they haven't seen any action yet. The leadership understands some of the difficulties with procedures but when it comes to procedures versus human lives the choice is clear," said Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the opposition. "People on the streets are saying where are the international forces? Is the international community waiting for the same crimes to be perpetrated on Benghazi has have been done by Gadhafi in the other cities?"
A doctor said 27 bodies had reached hospitals by midday. As night fell, though, the streets were quiet.
Libyan state television showed Gadhafi supporters converging on the international airport and a military garrison in Tripoli, and the airport in Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, in an apparent attempt to deter bombing.
In an open letter, Gadhafi warned: "You will regret it if you dare to intervene in our country."
In Paris, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Gadhafi's government had lost all legitimacy and lied about the cease-fire.
"We have every reason to fear that left unchecked, Gadhafi will commit unspeakable atrocities," she said.
Saturday's emergency meeting involved 22 leaders and top officials, including Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and the foreign ministers of Jordan, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. It was the largest international military action since the beginning of the Iraq war, launched almost exactly eight years ago.
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.
"This city is a symbol of the revolution, it's where it started and where it will end if this city falls," said Gheriani.
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 Gadhafi to 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.
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 Gadhafi late Friday, the United States, Britain and France -- backed by unspecified Arab countries -- called on Gadhafi 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 U.N. 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 work forces," he said.
Italy, which had been the main buyer for Libyan oil, offered the use of seven air and navy bases already housing U.S., 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.
A French fighter jet fired Saturday on a Libyan military vehicle, the first reported offensive action in the international military operation against Gadhafi's forces, French Defense Ministry spokesman Thierry Burkhard said.
Warplanes from the United States, Canada, Denmark arrived at Italian air bases Saturday as part of an international military buildup. Germany backed the operation but isn't offering its own forces.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said after the summit: "The time for action has come, it needs to be urgent."
Al-Shalchi contributed from Tripoli, Libya. Associated Press writers Ben Hubbard in Cairo; Nicole Winfield in Rome; and Jamey Keaten in Paris also contributed to this report.
|@ BreakingNews : Anti-Gadhafi fighters in Misurata say 28 people had died in the city in the past three days - Al Jazeera http://bit.ly/ecR130|
Gaddafi forces have reportedly captured the wife of Moussa Koussa, the former Foreign Minister who defected while in England. Reports the Telegraph:
The wife of the Libyan foreign minister who defected to Britain earlier this week has been seized by Colonel Gaddafi and is being interrogated by his "internal security" officials, The Daily Telegraph can disclose.
She is thought to have been captured amid eyewitness reports of a fierce gunfight at Col Gaddafi's central Tripoli compound as the regime stepped in to stop further defections.
Yesterday, local residents recalled how the most fierce firefight yet seen in central Tripoli had erupted within hours of the regime confirming that the Foreign Minister had defected.
Read the entire report here.
NBC's Ann Curry tweets that the U.S. will move to support missions only:
|@ AnnCurry : NBCNews: US military will stop flying COMBAT missions over Libya, only SUPPORT missions incl reconnaissance, starting April 2.|
Channel Four correspondent Jonathan Rugman spoke with Libya's former Prime Minister Abdul Ati al-Obeidi, who said that Gaddafi is trying to set up talks to stop the killing. During the interview, Obeidi told Rugman, "We are trying to talk to the British, the French and the Americans to stop the killing of people. We are trying to find a mutual solution."
Watch a report from Channel Four on the Libya talks below:
Despite complaints to the contrary, the U.S. Senate actually did support a no-fly zone over Libya. The AP reports:
Some lawmakers are grousing loudly that President Barack Obama sent the nation's military to Libya without Congress' blessing. They're ignoring a key fact: The Senate a month ago voted to support imposing a no-fly zone to protect civilians from attacks by Col. Moammar Gadhafi's forces.
With no objections, the Senate on March 1 backed a resolution strongly condemning "the gross and systematic violations of human rights in Libya" and urging the U.N. Security Council to take action, "including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone over Libyan territory."
There was no recorded vote. It was simply approved by unanimous consent.
|@ Reuters : FLASH: Libyan government rejects rebels' conditions for ceasefire, says troops will not leave Libyan cities|
"They are asking us to withdraw from our own cities. .... If this is not mad then I don't know what this is. We will not leave out cities," said Mussa Ibrahim, the government spokesman.
Robert Haddick, writing at Foreign Policy, argues that the rebels need combat skills much more than they need heavy artillery. He writes:
On March 30, it was reported that CIA officers were in Libya with the rebels, making an assessment of their situation and possibly directing airstrikes in support of their fighters. We can gather from open sources much of what these intelligence officers are likely to report. As a military force, Libya's rebels are a disorganized rabble and seem incapable of preparing and holding defensive positions or maneuvering effectively against rudimentary enemy resistance. The rebels need boot camp, fundamental infantry training, and the development of some battlefield leaders, not a new stockpile of weapons.
Those Western leaders whose plan currently consists of hoping that Qaddafi will be spontaneously overthrown need to think again. Absent a Western invasion of the country, the rebel force is the only means of removing Qaddafi, and the rebels will need many months or even years of training before they are capable of defeating loyalist ground units and marching all the way to Tripoli.
Read the entire piece here.
Gunfire has been reported in Gaddafi's compound. Reuters reports:
Sustained gunfire rang out near Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's heavily fortified compound in Tripoli on Friday and residents said they saw snipers on rooftops and pools of blood on the streets.
It was not clear what triggered long bursts of machinegun and automatic gunfire that echoed around the city center for about 20 minutes and stopped before dawn.
Cars were heard speeding along central Tripoli streets, their tires screeching on the asphalt. Distant shouting or chanting also was heard.
A journalist who was picked up by Libyan security details his ordeal. Here's an excerpt of his story from Reuters:
We sat quietly. I turned to Chris, a London-based Canadian I had worked with in Iraq. I said I thought they would kill us.
A soldier opened the lock and the rear door swung open again. We looked down at the back of a station wagon which had been opened up to reveal some blankets. I thought they would perhaps drive us away. Maybe they were going to free us?
But a closer look showed feet poking under the blankets.
Soldiers then pulled aside the coverings and hauled three handcuffed young men up and in beside us. When we were locked in again, they told us they were Libyan university students.
Later, several soldiers came in. "Who are you?" one asked me. We are Reuters journalists, I said. He is our driver. We have permission. We were invited here by your government.
The soldier shook his head. "Bad time to be a journalist in Libya." Reporters were part of a foreign conspiracy against Libya, he said. But then he made it clear that if they decided we were not journalists but spies, that would be worse.
"If you tell us the truth, it should be fine, God willing. But if we catch you lying, oh we will show no mercy. None."
Read the rest here.
Libyan rebels have made a deal to sell oil to Qatar. Reports the AP:
A plan to sell rebel-held oil to buy weapons and other supplies has been reached with Qatar, a rebel official said Friday, in another sign of deepening aid for Libya's opposition by the wealthy Gulf state after sending warplanes to help confront Moammar Gadhafi's forces.
It was not immediately clear when the possible oil sales could begin or how the arms would reach the rebel factions, but any potential revenue stream would be a significant lifeline for the militias and military defectors battling Gadhafi's superior forces.
Gaddafi forces are attacking home in Misrata, according to rebels. Reuters reports:
Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi are mounting an intense artillery bombardment of rebel-held Misrata and pro-Gaddafi troops are attacking shops and homes in the city center, a rebel spokesman said.
Misrata is the last big rebel stronghold in western Libya but after weeks of shelling and encirclement, government forces appear to be gradually loosening the rebels' hold on the city, despite Western air strikes on pro-Gaddafi targets there.
The Associated Press reports:
Libya's rebels will agree to a cease-fire if Moammar Gadhafi pulls his military forces out of cities and allows peaceful protests against his regime, an opposition leader said Friday.
Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the opposition's interim governing council based in Benghazi, said the rebels' condition for a cease-fire is "that the Gadhafi brigades and forces withdraw from inside and outside Libyan cities to give freedom to the Libyan people to choose and the world will see that they will choose freedom."
Read more here.
Libyan rebels moved towards the key oil town of Brega on Friday, as conditions drifted towards a stalemate. Reuters reports:
Libyan rebels moved heavier weaponry toward the oil town of Brega on Friday and sought to marshal rag-tag units into a more disciplined force to regain momentum against Muammar Gaddafi's regular army.
While military action appeared to drift toward stalemate, coalition diplomatic efforts focused on breaking Gaddafi's hold on power in Tripoli. London urged Gaddafi loyalists to abandon him, following the defection of Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa.
Rebels said neither side could claim control of Brega, one of a string of oil towns along the Mediterranean coast that have been taken and retaken several times by each side in recent weeks. The insurgents have failed to hold gains, even when helped by Western air strikes.
From Al Jazeera:
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle says Libya's crisis cannot be resolved through military means and all sides must get to work on a political resolution.
Westerwelle said on a visit to China that a first step must be a cease-fire that is heeded by Gaddafi.
BBC News reports that U.S. senators are drafting legislation that would authorize the use of force in Libya. The senators include John Kerry and John McCain.
The 1973 War Powers Act says US armed forces must start to withdraw after 60 days unless explicitly authorised to fight by Congress. In the case of Libya, that mark would fall on 20 May, Mr Kerry said.
The National Journal reports that the U.S. may be on a slippery slope when it comes to the Libyan mission:
It’s an old question, but we’ve been through enough of these interventions now --from Vietnam to Kosovo to Afghanistan--to insist on asking it once again: Is the United States on a slippery slope in Libya, one that will lead to American military involvement on the ground? The evidence, on balance, is that under President Obama the U.S. presence is going to expand quickly—but covertly.
Read the full article here.
Reuters reports that Libya's top oil official, Shokri Ghanem, has denied rumors that he left the country.
Al Jazeera television listed Ghanem as one the figures who had left Libya, but Ghanem said in a phone call, "This is not true, I am in my office and I will be on TV in a few minutes."
BBC News reports that London Mayor Boris Johnson, a Conservative, offers his concerns about involvement in Libya:
"I am worried that what we may be doing inadvertently is entrenching support for the mad colonel... I do worry that if we get into a stalemate, if the rebels don't seem to be making the progress we hope they would make, then we should be brave enough to say to ourselves our policy isn't working."
The New York Times reports that as a second top Libyan official, Ali Abdussalam el-Treki, defects from the Gaddafi government, fears mount within the regime.
The capital of Tripoli was alive with rumored defections on Thursday, with the prime minister and the speaker of Parliament, among other top figures, said at various times to be quitting the country. None of those reports could be verified. But the authorities were taking no chances, assigning guards to senior officials to assure they cannot leave, a former Libyan official said.
BBC News reports that, according to U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen, international air strikes have been hampered by bad weather over the past few days.
According to AFP, Mullen says that they have not been able to see through the weather to identify targets. "And that has more than anything else reduced the impact... reduced the effectiveness, and has allowed the regime forces to move back to the east."
Al Jazeera reporter Anita McNaught discusses the defections in Libya:
"We got word from sources outside of Tripoli that there were at least four senior figures from the Gadaffi administration who were perhaps in Tunisia, or certainly outside the country and not intending to go home. These were, last night as we understood it, the current head of the Intelligence Service, the Oil Minister (and I'll mark a question mark with that in a minute), the Secretary of the General People's Congress, and the Deputy Foreign Minister."
BBC News reports on apparent threats in London by a pro-Gaddafi protestor:
Libyan state television has broadcast footage showing a pro-Gaddafi protestor in London yanking open his jacket and vowing to turn himself an "explosive bomb", a video on YouTube shows. The incident is said to have occurred at the protest near the Foreign Office in Whitehall on 29 March. In the clip, which has been circulated widely on social media, the man refers to anti-Gaddafi protestors as "traitors and rats", and exhorts Libyans to "return to the Koran."
The Guardian reports that Mohammed Ismail, a senior aide to Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam, has traveled to London for confidential talks with British officials.
It is suggested that the regime may be looking for an exit strategy. There is speculation that Gaddafi's sons, namely Saif al-Islam, Saadi and Mutassim, are looking for a way out.
Although he has little public profile in either Libya or internationally, Ismail is recognised by diplomats as being a key fixer and representative for Saif al-Islam.
According to cables published by WikiLeaks, Ismail has represented the Libyan government in arms purchase negotiations and acted as an interlocutor on military and political issues.
"The message that was delivered to him is that Gaddafi has to go and that there will be accountability for crimes committed at the international criminal court," a Foreign Office spokesman told the Guardian , declining to elaborate on what else may have been discussed.
Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan continued his defense of embattled Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi during a press conference in Chicago Thursday, and slammed the United States' decision to get involved in the conflict.
The 78-year-old leader of the Chicago-based organization spoke at Mosque Maryam, the Nation of Islam headquarters, according to the Chicago Tribune.
"It is a terrible thing for me to hear my brother called all these ugly and filthy names when I can't recognize him as that," Farrakhan said of Gaddafi, according to the Tribune. "Even though the current tide is moving against him ... how can I refuse to raise my voice in his defense? Why would I back down from those who have given so much."
Farrakhan has publicly defended Gaddafi a number of times since the Libyan uprising began. He reportedly visited the Libyan leader in the 1980s, and told attendees of a Nation of Islam convention in February that the United States should stay out of Libya's affairs.
Full report here.
Breaking News reports on Twitter that according to the UK Independent, Britain is in talks with ten more Gaddafi officials about possible defection.
BBC News provides the account of a witness in Tripoli.
According to the witness, any anti-government dissidents who spoke out publicly were deemed by officials as mentally ill and thus detained indefinitely. Because of this, the witness is not surprised that Iman al-Obeidi was immediately described as mentally ill last week.
She is not the first case of rape we have heard of here.
I have heard of two other cases in recent weeks. One of them was of a Moroccan housekeeper who was left behind by her employers as they fled to a safe house because half their family members had been detained.
The story that circulated through word-of-mouth was that security forces stormed the house she was staying in with the intention of detaining the rest of the family. Finding her alone there instead, they raped her.
Read the full account here.
A top Libyan diplomat now supporting the opposition says most high-rank Libyan officials are trying to defect but are under tight security and having difficulty leaving the country.
Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya's deputy U.N. ambassador, told The Associated Press on Thursday that Libya's U.N. Mission, which now totally supports the opposition, knew two days in advance that Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa planned to defect.
"This is a big blow to the regime," Dabbashi said.
He said the mission had been waiting for about 10 days for Ali Abdessalam Treki, a former foreign minister and U.N. General Assembly president named by Moammar Gadhafi to be the new U.N. ambassador, to defect. Treki announced his defection Thursday in Cairo.
Libya's Transitional National Council has released a statement on counter-terrorism. The council says that it condemns and will combat all forms of terrorism.
Regarding al-Qaeda, the council states:
It emphasizes also its full commitment to the implementation of the relevant Security Council resolutions on Counter-Terrorism, including the resolutions on the Sanctions concerning al-Qaeda and Taliban, with the full commitment to all measures and sanctions concerning any individual or entity associated with al-Qaeda and Taliban as determined by the Sanctions Committee.
The council pledges to help the United Nations and cooperate with it's counter-terrorism task forces.
Read the full statement here.
HuffPost's Saki Knafo reports:
Earlier this week, rebel forces in Libya fought their way to the outskirts of Sirte, a seafront city about the size of Tallahassee. The day before, pushing westward along the coast from Ajdabiya, they'd recaptured the oil towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf -- Sirte, experts said, was the last major obstacle standing in the rebels' path to the capital city of Tripoli.
Sirte. Before Sunday, few outside Libya had heard of it. Now it's being portrayed as the key to Libya's hopes for democracy, the fulcrum on which the nation's fate would turn. Its importance can be explained partly by location, its proximity to the capital. But it mattered for other reasons, too, reasons that reveal a lot about a conflict with complexities outsiders are only beginning to grasp.
Read the full story here.
According to The New York Times, U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague denies that Moussa Koussa was offered any immunity to lure him to leave Gaddafi's regime. Hague reports that he is voluntarily speaking with British officials.
The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said on March 3 that he would investigate “alleged crimes against humanity committed in Libya since 15 February, as peaceful demonstrators were attacked by security forces.” He placed Mr. Koussa second after Colonel Qaddafi on a list of “some individuals with formal or de facto authority, who commanded and had control over the forces that allegedly committed the crimes.”