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Saturday, March 19, 2011

U.S. Missiles Strike Libyan Air-Defense Targets - NYTimes.com

U.S. Missiles Strike Libyan Air-Defense Targets - NYTimes.com

By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, STEVEN ERLANGER and ELISABETH BUMILLER
This article is by David D. Kirkpatrick, Steven Erlanger and Elisabeth Bumiller.

TRIPOLI, Libya — American and European forces began a broad campaign of strikes against the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi on Saturday, unleashing warplanes and missiles in a military intervention on a scale not seen in the Arab world since the Iraq war.

The mission to impose a United Nations-sanctioned no-fly zone and keep Colonel Qaddafi from using air power against beleaguered rebel forces was portrayed by Pentagon and NATO officials as under French and British leadership.

But the Pentagon said that American forces were mounting an initial campaign to knock out Libya’s air defense systems, firing volley after volley of Tomahawk missiles from nearby ships against missile, radar and communications centers around Tripoli, the capital and the western cities of Misurata and Surt.

Early Sunday, the sound of antiaircraft fire and screaming fighter jets echoed across Tripoli, punctuated by heavy explosions.

Speaking on Libyan state television, Colonel Qaddafi said the international action against his forces was unjustified, calling it “simply a colonial crusader aggression that may ignite another large-scale crusader war.”

Muhammad Zweid, secretary of the Libyan Parliament, said the intervention had “caused some real harm against civilians and buildings.” But he declined to specify which civilian buildings or locations were hit.

Later, state TV quoted the armed forces command as saying 48 people had been killed and 150 wounded. The accuracy of the report could not be verified.

Officials took pains to show reporters a group of civilians whom they portrayed as volunteers who had flocked to Mr. Qaddafi’s compound to shield him from the attacks. President Obama, speaking during a visit to Brazil, reiterated promises that no American ground forces would be used.

“I am deeply aware of the risks of any military action, no matter what limits we place on it,” he said. “I want the American people to know that the use of force is not our first choice, and it’s not a choice that I make lightly. But we can’t stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy.”

The campaign began with French warplanes, which started their attacks even before the end of an emergency meeting among allied leaders in Paris. The officials, reacting to news that Colonel Qaddafi’s forces were attacking the rebel capital of Benghazi despite international demands for a cease-fire, said they had no choice but to defend Libyan civilians and opposition forces.

But there were signs of disagreement among the allies in Paris. Some diplomats said that French insistence on the meeting had delayed military action against Colonel Qaddafi’s forces before they reached Benghazi, a charge that French officials denied.

Benghazi residents interviewed by telephone reported a relentless artillery barrage before government tanks entered the city from the west on Saturday morning. There was heavy fighting in the city center, and pro-Qaddafi snipers could be seen on the building that the rebel council used as a foreign ministry, not far from the courthouse that is the council’s headquarters.

“Our assessment is that the aggressive actions by Qaddafi forces continue in many places around the country,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said after the Paris meeting. “We saw it over the last 24 hours, and we’ve seen no real effort on the part of the Qaddafi forces to abide by a cease-fire, despite the rhetoric.”

Western leaders acknowledged, though, that there was no endgame beyond the immediate United Nations authorization to protect Libyan civilians, and it was uncertain that even military strikes would force Colonel Qaddafi from power.

Many of the leaders who were in Paris had called for Colonel Qaddafi to quit, and it may be that military intervention leads to negotiations with the opposition for the colonel and his family to leave — or, at the least, buys time for the rebels to regroup.

There are risks, though. One widely held concern is the possibility of a divided Libya with no clear authority, opening the door for Islamic extremists to begin operating in a country that had been closed to them. The assault may also present a double standard: While the West has taken punitive action against Libya, a relatively isolated Arab state, the governments in Bahrain and Yemen have faced few penalties after cracking down on their own protest movements.

The main barrage of missile strikes began around 2 p.m. Eastern time, when the United States Navy fired cruise missiles that struck Libya roughly an hour later, Vice Adm. William Gortney told reporters in Washington. He said the Pentagon had not yet assessed the damage that the missiles had caused and would not be able to do so until dawn broke in Libya.

The missile strikes were the start of what Admiral Gortney called a “multiphase operation” to create a no-fly zone that would allow coalition aircraft to fly over Libya without the risk of being shot down. He would not say whether American aircraft would be involved in enforcing the no-fly zone, but he said that no American aircraft were directly over Libya on Saturday afternoon.

Admiral Gortney cast the United States as the “leading edge” among coalition partners in the opening phase of the attack. But in keeping with Mr. Obama’s and Mrs. Clinton’s emphasis that the administration was not driving the efforts to strike Libya, the admiral and other Pentagon officials repeated that the United States would step back within days and hand over command of the coalition to one of its European allies.

The United States has at least 11 warships stationed near Tripoli, including three submarines — the Scranton, the Florida and the Providence — and the destroyers the Stout and the Barry. All five fired cruise missiles on Saturday, the Navy said. Other coalition ships in the Mediterranean included 11 from Italy and one each from Britain, Canada and France.

Earlier Saturday, Colonel Qaddafi issued letters warning Mr. Obama and other leaders not to use military force against him.

The tone of the letters — one addressed to Mr. Obama and a second to Mr. Sarkozy, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations — suggested that Colonel Qaddafi was leaving himself little room to back down.

“Libya is not yours. Libya is for all Libyans,” he wrote in a letter that was read to the news media by a spokesman. “This is injustice, it is clear aggression, and it is uncalculated risk for its consequences on the Mediterranean and Europe.

“You will regret it if you take a step toward intervening in our internal affairs.”

Colonel Qaddafi addressed Mr. Obama as “my son” in a letter that was jarring for its familiarity. “I have said to you before that even if Libya and the United States enter into war, God forbid, you will always remain my son, and I have all the love for you as a son, and I do not want your image to change with me,” he wrote. “We are confronting Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, nothing more. What would you do if you found them controlling American cities with the power of weapons? Tell me how would you behave, so that I could follow your example?”

In Paris, the emergency meeting included the prime ministers or foreign ministers from Britain, Canada, Germany, Norway, Italy, Qatar, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Denmark, Belgium, Spain, Poland and Mrs. Clinton for the United States.

Amr Moussa, who recently resigned as secretary general of the Arab League to run for president of Egypt, was also there, along with the league’s incoming leader, Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign minister of Iraq. Also attending were the European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Mr. Ban of the United Nations.

But there were no African leaders there. The African Union chief, Jean Ping, instead traveled to Mauritania for a meeting with the continent’s leaders who sought to mediate a peaceful end to the Libyan crisis.

The United States, France and Britain had insisted that at least some Arab governments be involved in the Libyan operation, at least symbolically, to remove the chance that Colonel Qaddafi would portray the military action as another Western colonial intervention in pursuit of oil. But there was no sign that any Arab military would explicitly take part.

The initial French air sorties, which were not coordinated with other countries, angered some of the leaders in Paris, according to a senior diplomat from a NATO country. Information about the movement of Colonel Qaddafi’s troops toward Benghazi had been clear on Friday, but France blocked any NATO agreement on airstrikes until the Paris meeting, the diplomat said, suggesting that the flights could have begun before government forces reached the city.

But Bernard Valero, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, said that there had been no delay because of the Paris meeting and no political decision to make the no-fly zone a NATO operation, which Paris has opposed from the start.

Perhaps in an effort to provide political cover before the allied strikes began, the Libyan government spokesman in Tripoli, Moussa Ibrahim, denied that pro-Qaddafi troops were attacking Benghazi, and he said that only the rebels had an incentive to break the cease-fire.

But in Benghazi, residents said the fighting was heavy as soldiers reached the city center along the main road, which is named for the anticolonial Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser. And a Soviet-era MIG-23 fighter jet that rebels said they had captured in the early days of the uprising and that they had sent on a mission against government forces went down in flames in the city. The pilot ejected, but was reported to have died from his injuries.

“We didn’t know which side the shooting was coming from,” said Umm Muftah, who escaped from Benghazi with her family about 2 p.m. A neighbor told her the balconies had been blown off her building. “We saw black smoke,” Ms. Muftah said. “They said a plane crashed down in one of the streets.”

Nearby, in the rebel-held city of Bayda, crowds cheered the news that French planes were attacking pro-Qaddafi forces in the east while allied missiles were falling in the west.

“Sarkozy is bombing them!” one rebel fighter told drivers passing his checkpoint on the way to Bayda. “They’re bombing Bab al-Aziziyah!” other fighters yelled, referring to Colonel Qaddafi’s fortified compound in Tripoli.

Refugees fleeing the fighting in Benghazi were greeted by young men holding house keys, offering empty homes for shelter.

Abdul Qadi al-Faydi drove his family and two others in a Mitsubishi truck that was packed with what seemed like everything the families owned, including a refrigerator and a washing machine.

“My entire street was destroyed,” he said. Ahead of them, young men huddled in the back of a delivery truck, under floral blankets. A minivan shuttled a group of traumatized neighbors toward the Egyptian border. As they entered Bayda, they were met by young men cheering and chanting, as if victory were at hand.

“One, two, three,” a group chanted in English. “Thanks, Sarkozy!”

David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Tripoli, Libya; Steven Erlanger from Paris; and Elisabeth Bumiller from Washington. Kareem Fahim contributed reporting from eastern Libya, Steven Lee Myers from Paris and Jackie Calmes from Brasília.

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