French missile destroys Libyan plane on ground

PARIS Thu Mar 24, 2011 2:18pm EDT

PARIS (Reuters) - A French warplane destroyed a Libyan military aircraft with an air-to-ground missile as it landed at Misrata air base in western Libya Thursday, France's armed forces said Thursday.

An armed forces spokesman said a patrol of Rafale fighters -- part of the Western coalition force carrying out a U.N.-mandated intervention to protect civilians -- spotted the Libyan plane breaching a no-fly order.

"The French patrol carried out an air-to-ground strike with an AASM weapon just after the plane had landed at the Misrata air base," the spokesman said.

The spokesman was briefing reporters after a meeting in Paris between Qatar's armed forces chief of staff, Hamad bin Ali al-Attiyah, and French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet, which Longuet said afterwards was mainly about protocol.

"Qatar will honor its international commitments," Attiyah told reporters after the meeting, in comments translated from Arabic, but would not give further details.

He also held talks with his French military counterpart.

Qatar has sent two fighter jets and two C-17 transport aircraft to Crete so they can take part in enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya, the only Arab nation so far to send hardware, although the United Arab Emirates has also pledged aircraft.

Western warplanes struck deeper inside Libya Thursday after Gaddafi's tanks re-entered the town of Misrata overnight and besieged its main hospital. In a fifth night of bombardments by Western powers, French planes struck a central Libyan air base in the early hours of the morning.

Around 15 French planes had been deployed Wednesday and a dozen overnight, leading to missile strikes on an air base some 155 miles inland from Libya's Mediterranean coast.

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe defended the pace of the coalition air operation, which has been spearheaded by France.

He said five days was not long enough to have achieved the mission's goal of protecting civilians from being snared in attacks by Gaddafi's troops, but it would be a matter of weeks.

"The destruction of Gaddafi's military capacity is a matter of days or weeks, certainly not months," Juppe told reporters.

Paris is pushing to set up a contact group, made up of countries involved in the operation and others, including Arab nations, that back it, to govern political strategy for the mission while NATO runs day-to-day military coordination.

Juppe said Arab leaders needed to understand that the tide of protests sweeping the region would change things for good and all countries needed to take this into account.

"The process going on in the Arab world is irreversible. People's aspirations must be taken into consideration everywhere, including in Saudi Arabia," he said.

(Additional reporting by John Irish and Elizabeth Pineau; writing by Catherine Bremer; editing by Myra MacDonald)

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