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Libya:Western forces attack Libya to enforce UN no- fly zone

Reuters/ Goran Tomasevic

A tank belonging to forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi explodes after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011.

TRIPOLI, Mar 20, 2011

Western forces pounded Libya 's air defenses and patrolled its skies Sunday, but their day-old intervention hit a diplomatic setback as the Arab League chief condemned the "bombardment of civilians."

As European and U.S. forces unleashed warplanes and cruise missiles against Muammar Gaddafi's air defenses and armor, the Libyan leader said the air strikes amounted to terrorism and vowed to fight to the death.

Later, however, an armed forces spokesman appeared at a live televised news conference at 9 pm (1900 GMT) to say the army was ordering all troops to cease fire immediately.

This statement drew no immediate response from western powers, who had blamed Gaddafi's government for breaking a unilateral ceasefire it announced last week.

The military intervention had forced Gaddafi's eastern forces to flee from the outskirts of Benghazi in the face of the allied air attacks.

However, tanks also moved into Misrata, the last rebel-held city in western Libya. Among the densely packed houses full of civilians, they were less vulnerable to attack from the air.

A Libyan government health official said 64 people had been killed in the Western bombardment overnight, but it was impossible to verify the report as government minders refused to take reporters in Tripoli to the sites of the bombings.

Arab League chief Amr Moussa called for an emergency meeting of the group of 22 states to discuss Libya. He requested a report into the bombardment, which he said had "led to the deaths and injuries of many Libyan civilians."

"What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians," Egypt 's state news agency quoted Moussa as saying.

Arab backing for a no-fly zone provided crucial underpinning for the passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution last week that paved the way for Western action to stop Gaddafi killing civilians as he fights an uprising against his rule.

The intervention is the biggest against an Arab country since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Withdrawal of Arab support would make it much harder to pursue what some defense analysts say could in any case be a difficult, open-ended campaign with an uncertain outcome.

Britain and the United States rebuffed Moussa's comments.

A senior U.S. official said a U.N. resolution endorsed by Arab states covered "all necessary measures" to protect civilians, "which we made very clear includes, but goes beyond, a no-fly zone."

A British foreign ministry spokesman said the safe enforcement of the no-fly zone required the targeting of Libya's air defense capabilities, but that all missions were carefully planned to avoid civilian casualties.


The U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said the no-fly zone was effectively in place. But he told CBS the endgame of military action was "very uncertain" and acknowledged it could end in a stalemate with Gaddafi.

Mullen said he had seen no reports of civilian casualties from the Western strikes. But Russia said there had been such casualties and called on Britain, France and the United States to halt the "non-selective use of force."

Libya n state television showed footage from an unidentified hospital of what it called victims of the "colonial enemy." Ten bodies were wrapped up in white and blue bed sheets, and several people were wounded, one of them badly, the television said.

The armed forces spokesman said "the Libyan armed forces ... have issued a command to all military units to safeguard an immediate ceasefire from 9 p.m. (3 p.m. EDT) this evening."

Minutes before he made the announcement, heavy anti-aircraft gunfire boomed above central Tripoli, followed by sustained machinegun fire.

The country announced a unilateral ceasefire last week but Western powers then accused Gaddafi of breaking the truce -- a charge denied by the government.

In a possible attempt to show Libya's softening of its position, Mohamed Sharif, a tribal official, invited people to join a symbolic march from Tripoli to Benghazi.

"And then we could sit down as one family to discuss the affairs of our homeland and the future of Libya in a democratic and peaceful way," he said at the televised news conference.

Western intervention, after weeks of diplomatic wrangling, was welcomed with a mix of apprehension and relief in Benghazi, where the main hospital was filled with men, women and children wounded in Saturday's assault on the city by Gaddafi's forces.

"We salute France, Britain, the United States and the Arab countries for standing with Libya. But we think Gaddafi will take out his anger on civilians. So the West has to hit him hard," said civil servant Khalid al-Ghurfaly, 38.

Outside the eastern city, the advance by Gaddafi's troops was stopped in its tracks with smoldering, shattered tanks and troop carriers littering the main road. The charred bodies of at least 14 government soldiers lay scattered in the desert.

Rebels who have been fighting for a month to end Gaddafi's 41 years in power advanced south from Benghazi toward the strategic junction at Ajdabiyah, which they lost last week.

But in Misrata, east of Tripoli, residents said government tanks and snipers had entered the center of the city after a base outside it had been hit by Western air strikes.

"Two people were killed so far today by snipers. They (snipers) are still on the rooftops. They are backed with four tanks, which have been patrolling the town. It's getting very difficult for people to come out," one Misrata resident, called Sami, told Reuters by telephone.

"There are also boats encircling the port and preventing aid from reaching the town."

Abdelbasset, a spokesman for the rebels in Misrata, told Reuters: "There is fighting between the rebels and Gaddafi's forces. Their tanks are in the center of Misrata ... There are so many casualties we cannot count them."


French planes fired the first shots of the intervention on Saturday, destroying tanks and armored vehicles near Benghazi. The eastern city is the cradle of the revolt, inspired by Arab uprisings that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt .

France sent an aircraft carrier toward Libya and its planes were over the country again Sunday, defense officials said. Britain said its planes had targeted Libya's air defenses, mainly around the capital Tripoli.

U.S. and British warships and submarines launched 110 Tomahawk missiles overnight against air defenses around Tripoli and Misrata, U.S. military officials said.

They said U.S. forces and planes were working with Britain, France, Canada and Italy in operation "Odyssey Dawn." Four Danish fighter planes took off from a base in Italy, apparently to join the mission over Libya.

Aircraft from other countries, including Qatar, were also approaching Libya to participate in the operation, Mullen said.


Story by Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy from Reuters. Aditional reporting by Mohammed Abbas and Angus MacSwan in Benghazi, Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy in Tripoli, Hamid Ould Ahmed and Christian Lowe in Algiers; Tom Perry in Cairo, John Irish and Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, Missy Ryan in Washington, Matt Spetalnick in Rio de Janeiro; Writing by Myra Macdonald; Editing by Jon Boyle

Reuters / Sun Mar 20, 2011 6:00pm EDT



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