Western powers strike Libya; Arab League has doubts

TRIPOLI Sun Mar 20, 2011 7:55pm EDT

1 of 31. A French Rafale fighter jet takes on fuel, in this photo released March 20, 2011 by ECPAD (French Defence communication and audiovisual production agency), during an airborne operation March 19, 2011 during the initial French attacks on Libya.

Credit: Reuters/ECPAD/SIRPA AIR/Christophe Patebaire

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TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Western powers pressed ahead on Sunday with a campaign of air attacks in Libya, promising more strikes despite criticism by the Arab League.

U.S. military officials said Saturday's strikes had halted an advance by Muammar Gaddafi's forces on the eastern rebel stronghold Benghazi and hit his air defenses, allowing western powers to send in planes to impose a no-fly zone.

But the day-old U.N.-mandated military intervention to force Gaddafi's troops to end attacks on civilians hit a diplomatic setback when the Arab League chief questioned the bombardment.

"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 Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa as saying.

Gaddafi himself said the air strikes amounted to terrorism and vowed to fight to the death, although at 9 p.m. (3 p.m. EDT) on Sunday an armed forces spokesman said the army was ordering all troops to cease fire immediately.

The United States and Britain, who along with France, Italy and Canada have joined operation "Odyssey Dawn," dismissed the ceasefire announcement, arguing that Gaddafi's government had promised and then broken a ceasefire on Friday.

In central Benghazi, sporadic explosions and heavy firing could be heard in the streets late in the evening. A Reuters witness said the firing lasted about 40 minutes.

Residents had said they feared some of Gaddafi's troops could try to force their way into the city, where they would be surrounded by civilians and protected from attacks from the air.

Outside Benghazi, 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.

However, government tanks did move into Misrata, the last rebel-held city in western Libya, seeking the shelter of built-up areas after a base used by Gaddafi's forces outside was hit by Western air strikes, residents said.

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."

CIVILIAN CASUALTIES

A Libyan government health official said 64 people had been killed in the Western bombardment overnight from Saturday to Sunday, but it was impossible to verify the report.

The Arab League's 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."

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."

The safe enforcement of the no-fly zone required the targeting of Libya's air defense capabilities, a British Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

A spokesman for the rebel movement criticized Moussa's comments, telling Al Jazeera that more than 8,000 Libyans aligned with the rebel movement had been killed.

"Today, when the secretary-general spoke, I was surprised," Abdel Hafiz Ghoga said.

"What is the mechanism that stops the extermination of the people in Libya, what is the mechanism, Mr Secretary-General? If the protection of civilians is not a humanitarian obligation, what is the mechanism that you propose to us?"

"COLONIAL ENEMY"

The U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said the no-fly zone was now in place. But he told CBS television 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."

Libyan 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 Libyan government has denied breaking a ceasefire that it announced on Friday, blaming rebels who it says are members of al Qaeda.

The armed forces spokesman announced a new ceasefire on Sunday, saying that "the Libyan armed forces ... have issued a command to all military units to safeguard an immediate ceasefire from 9 p.m. (1900 GMT) this evening."

Both before and after he spoke, heavy anti-aircraft gunfire boomed above central Tripoli.

A senior military official said the United States expected to conduct more strikes on Libya. "This is an ongoing military operation. I fully expect more strikes," he said.

Britain said it was taking part in a second night of coordinated strikes and had once more launched Tomahawk cruise missiles from a submarine in the Mediterranean. Italy said it also had planes in the air.

QATAR SENDING PLANES

The United States, after embarking on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been reluctant to take the lead in the military operation, keen to leave this to France and Britain while also assembling a large coalition to support it.

French planes fired the first shots of the intervention on Saturday, destroying tanks and armoured vehicles near Benghazi.

France sent an aircraft carrier toward Libya and its planes were over the country again on 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 on Saturday night and Sunday morning against air defenses around Tripoli and Misrata, U.S. officials said.

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

(Reporting by Mohammed Abbes 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 Kevin Liffey)

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Comments (49)
Peace Prize Winner Obama sends cruise missiles into Libya: “War is Peace” was Big Brother’s slogan in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. And the goal is to do what? Change the government — the traditional purpose of WAR.

The excuse “to protect civilians” is a novel one. I’ll give the imperial powers credit for that. My guess is civilians will get killed and a civil war prolonged.

But why are Europe and the US so anxious to overturn Gadhafi after more than 40 years? And were they behind the rebellion to begin with? That was the case in Afghanistan in 1978, when Carter armed and financed the rebellion that led to Russian intervention and a million deaths.

I notice that when Israeli aircraft and missiles are used against civilians in Lebanon or Gaza, I don’t see the West threatening anything at all — no embargo, nothing to prevent Israel from flying and bombing, and surely no attack on tanks or armored vehicles used to kill civilians. How many? More than 20,000 civilians in many such attacks going back to 1978.

The definition of a bully is “one who uses strength or power to intimidate or harm others.” Looks like the West, Gadhafi, and Israel have a lot in common.

Mar 19, 2011 12:54am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Greenspan2 wrote:
As in every other tragedy and including this one, those who have had their homes and families destroyed do not care about geopolitical opinions.

Mar 20, 2011 1:24am EDT  --  Report as abuse
McBob08 wrote:
Anonymous, what on earth are you talking about? This is a secular rebellion against a secular government! Not everything in the Middle East is about religion, you fearmonger. What they cheered is irrelevant; the article didn’t say, so why are you assuming that it was “Allah Akbar” (No different than a Christian saying “Thank God!”, for your information)?

I’m sick of these Muslim-Haters commenting on news articles, spreading their irrational paranoia to others like the disease it is. Bush isn’t president anymore. The politics of fear are over! Get over it; al Qaida has *NOTHING* to do with the popular rebellion in Libya, so just drop it, hatemonger!

As for whether a war is good or bad, the issue is that this was already a war well before the West got involved. It was just a monstrously unfair war, with the side of the despot being armed with sophisticate weapons of war that the rebelling patriots just couldn’t stand against. The point of establishing the no-fly zone is so that the people of Libya can fight this issue out for themselves, without one side simply wiping out the other summarily. The forces of Gadhafi were already destroying the homes of innocent civilians, and the Western Coalition is only attacking military targets, exclusively.

War is a horrible thing when it happens, but it is part of human nature, and at times when a people are dealing with a fascist despot that will not let go of power through peaceful/diplomatic means, then war is what is left. I hate war more than most people, but people have to think; if England came up with a powerful weapon that was wiping out hundreds of American Rebel Troops during the US War of Independence and they could do nothing to stand against it, wouldn’t you have wanted Spain or some other big global power at the time to step in and stop that mega-weapon from being used, so that the war didn’t turn into a genocide?

Mar 20, 2011 3:20am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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