French missile destroys Libyan army plane on ground

PARIS Thu Mar 24, 2011 12:12pm EDT

PARIS (Reuters) - A French warplane destroyed a Libyan military aircraft with an air-to-ground missile as it was landing at Misrata air base in western Libya on Thursday, France's armed forces said on 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 caught in a counter-offensive by Muammar Gaddafi's troops against rebels -- 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, reading from an armed forces statement.

Western warplanes struck deeper inside Libya on Thursday after Gaddafi's tanks re-entered the town of Misrata overnight and besieged its main hospital.

Earlier on Thursday, France's armed forces said French planes had struck a central Libyan air base in the early hours of the morning in a fifth night of bombardments by Western powers against Gaddafi's military.

Around 15 French planes had been deployed on 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 early 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. He said it could take days or weeks, but certainly not months, to crush Gaddafi's military.

(Reporting by Daniel Flynn; writing by Catherine Bremer; editing by Mark Heinrich)