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French Fighter Jets Open Fire in Libya as Western Military Intervention Begins

Mar 19, 2011 – 3:35 PM
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Dana Kennedy

Dana Kennedy Contributor

NICE, France -- Followed by the U.S and Britain, France kicked off an international military strike on Libya today that left Col. Moammar Gadhafi's air and missile defense systems "severely disabled," military officials said.

The operation was launched eight years to the day after the U.S. announced the invasion of Iraq. French Mirage warplanes took the lead when they left a military base in Saint-Dizier in the east of France Saturday afternoon, destroying four pro-Gadhafi tanks outside Tripoli. The U.S. and Britain quickly joined the Allied air strike to prevent Gadhafi forces from further attacks on opposition forces in Libya.

Dubbed Operation Odyssey Dawn by the Pentagon, the military intervention was the first step in establishing a no-fly zone over Libya voted on by the UN last week. The Arab League agreed to the no-fly zone but did not participate in today's air strikes.

About two hours after the French strikes, the U.S. and the U.K. launched Tomahawk cruise missiles against Gadhafi's air and missile defense in what the Pentagon is calling Operation Odyssey Dawn. The Pentagon said the U.S. took the lead after the French aerial assault, with Italian, British and Canadian forces set to join the coalition effort.

More than 112 Tomahawk missiles hit more than 20 targets in western Libya, Vice Admiral William E. Gortney told reporters in Washington this afternoon. "This is just the first phase of a multiphase international operation," Gortney said. "We are on the leading edge of the operation now. But in coming days we intend to transfer some of that."

Five hours after France kicked off the military intervention, Reuters reported that a U.S. national security official said Gadhafi's air defense systems had been "seriously disabled."

Gortney said today's strikes were the first step in establishing a no-fly zone; currently there are no Allied aircraft flying over Libya. The strikes were aimed at taking out Gadhafi's air and missile defense systems.

"The Mediterranean has become a battlefield," a defiant Gadhafi said via telephone on Libyan state television.

About three hours after French warplanes struck, British Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed that British forces were in the air over Libya. "We have all seen the appalling brutality that Col. Gadhafi has meted out against his own people," Cameron told reporters in London. "What we are doing is necessary, legal and right."

Several armored vehicles were also reportedly hit in the strike.

Gadhafi spoke by telephone at around 11:30 p.m. local time on Libyan state television for three minutes, decrying the Allied operation. "The Libyan people must counter this," Gadhafi said. "We must open the weapons depot and arm all Libyans."

Libyan state television reported "civilian casualties" a few hours after the strikes began, but TV reporters live in Tripoli said they had not seen or heard anything.

Television images from Libyan state TV showed a sort of human shield around Gadhafi's Tripoli compound, famously bombed by the U.S. in 1986.

In Tripoli, Secretary-General of the Libyan Public Congress Mohamed al-Zawi spoke to reporters at 10:45 p.m. local time, assailing the Allied strike. "This aggression is barbaric and there is no excuse for it," al-Zawi said. "The number of civilians hurt by this aggression are filling up our hospitals as doctors try to save as many lives as possible."

Al-Zawi said Libya had been complying with its announced cease-fire and added that the government was trying to implement political and economic reforms. "We are sad that there is this barbaric armed attack," he said.

Military analyst Marwan Bishop told Al Jazeera that al-Zawi's remarks -- given that recent video images from Benghazi clearly show Gadhafi continuing his attacks -- were "mind-boggling."

"Are they delusional or are they just insulting everyone's intelligence?" he said. "It's hard to say. The Libyans have been consistently inconsistent. They threaten then they beg, they appeal then they strike back. It's schizophrenic."

The French air strikes began shortly after pro-Gadhafi forces shot down an opposition jet above Benghazi Saturday morning. Dramatic footage of the pilot ejecting from the plane just a few hundred feet above the ground was shown on Al Jazeera television. He did not survive.

"It's a grave decision we've had to take," Sarkozy told reporters after an emergency meeting in Elysee Palace in Paris with 22 world leaders, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Arab and European leaders.

"Along with our Arab, European and North American partners, France has decided to play its part before history," he said, adding that France and its partners were determined to halt Gadhafi's "killing frenzy."

Significantly, leaders from Iraq, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar attended the Paris meeting as part of the Western allies' mandate that the imposition of the no-fly zone include Arab nations.

Operation Odyssey Dawn was extraordinary for a number of reasons. One was the speed with which the mission was launched; the French strikes reportedly began before Sarkozy ended today's emergency meeting in Paris.

It was also significant that France was the first to act, given that the French notably opposed the U.S. and U.K.-led Iraq war. The cooperation of the Arab League with the West -- which Obama deemed crucial -- also was a first.

"A lot of blood has been spilled but we hope it's not too late," Mohamed Massin, who works with the rebels, told AOL News via Skype from Tripoli today. "I think we can win now. We needed help."

The French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle soon will be en route from Toulon, CNN reported.

"The people of Libya must be protected," President Barack Obama said in a statement from Brazil, where he began his visit to Latin America. The White House's decision to have Clinton in Paris, however, underscores the U.S. effort not to appear to be leading the military action.
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"America has unique capabilities to help our European and Canadian allies and our Arab partners," Clinton said today in Paris, in careful language that has become familiar as the U.S. endeavors to distance itself from perception that it is invading yet another Muslim country.
The military buildup in the Mediterranean includes American and Canadian F-18 fighter jets, Danish F-16s, Canadian CF-18 Hornets and British Typhoon and Tornado aircraft.

Witnesses reported Saturday that five American F-18s, two C-17s and a C-130 cargo plane landed Saturday at Aviano, which is home to the 31st Fighter Wing, according to the Associated Press.
Filed under: World, Arab World Unrest
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