US, European forces strike Libya

Onslaught of missiles hits air defense targets; mission seeks halt to attacks on rebels

By Steven Erlanger and David D. Kirkpatrick
New York Times / March 20, 2011

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TRIPOLI, Libya — American and European forces began a broad campaign of strikes against the government of Moammar Khadhafy yesterday, unleashing warplanes and missiles in a military intervention on a scale not seen in the Arab world since the Iraq War.

Pentagon and NATO officials detailed a mission designed to impose a United Nations-sanctioned no-fly zone and keep Khadafy from using airpower against beleaguered rebel forces in the east. While the overall effort was portrayed as mostly being led by France and Britain, the Pentagon said American forces dominated an effort to knock out Libya’s air-defense systems.

Vice Admiral William Gortney said about 110 Tomahawk missiles, fired from American warships and submarines and one British submarine, struck 20 air-defense targets around Tripoli, the capital, and the western city of Misrata. He said the strikes were against longer-range air defense missiles as well as early warning radar sites and main command-and-control communication centers.

Libyan state TV said 48 people had been killed in the attacks, but the report could not be independently verified.

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 Khadhafy’s forces were attacking the rebel capital, 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 gathered in Paris, where some diplomats said French insistence on the meeting had actually delayed military action against Khadhafy’s forces before they could reach Benghazi, a charge that French officials denied.

Benghazi residents interviewed by telephone reported a relentless government artillery barrage before tanks began entering the city through the west yesterday morning. There was heavy fighting in the city center, and pro-Khadafy snipers could be seen on the building the rebel council used as a foreign ministry, near the courthouse that is the council’s headquarters.

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

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

Many of the leaders in Paris had called for Khadafy to quit. Military intervention could lead to negotiations between the government and the opposition — or, at the least, it could buy time for the rebels to regroup.

There are risks. 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 international effort, called Operation Odyssey Dawn, 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 American Navy ships fired cruise missiles that struck Libya roughly an hour later, Vice Admiral William Gortney told reporters in Washington. He said the Pentagon did not yet have assessments of the damage the missiles had caused and would not know until dawn broke in Libya.

A senior US defense official, who spoke with the Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said the Americans believed Libya’s air defenses had been heavily damaged by the cruise missiles.

Explosions continued to rock the coastal cities, including Tripoli, where anti-aircraft guns could be heard firing overnight.

Libyan TV quoted the armed forces command as saying 48 people were killed and 150 wounded in the allied assault. Those claims could not be independently verified.

The missile strikes were the start of what 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 the no-fly zone, but he said that no American aircraft were directly over Libya yesterday afternoon.

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

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

Before the air assault, Khadafy issued letters warning Obama and other leaders not to use military force against him.

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

“Libya is not yours. Libya is for all Libyans,’’ he wrote in one letter, 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.’’

Khadafy addressed Obama as “our 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 summit included prime ministers or foreign ministers from Britain, Canada, Germany, Norway, Italy, Qatar, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Denmark, Belgium, Spain, Poland, and 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 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 some Arab governments be involved in the Libyan operation, at least symbolically, to remove the chance that Khadafy 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.

In Benghazi, residents described a punishing bombardment by Khadafy loyalists in the morning as tanks moved in from the west. Residents said the fighting became heavy as soldiers reached the city center. And a Soviet-era MIG-23 fighter jet that rebels said they had captured in the early days of the uprising and had sent on a mission to attack government forces went down in flames. The pilot ejected but was reported to have died.

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