Coalition Launches Military Action In Libya

By Charles Onians

Paris (ANTARA News/AFP) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Saturday announced the launch of military action in Libya, backed by Western countries and Arab allies, to stop Moamer Kadhafi`s offensive on rebels.

A French warplane opened fire on a vehicle in Libya at 1645 GMT, the first shot in an operation to enforce a UN resolution calling for a no-fly zone and protection of Libyans from Kadhafi`s forces, the French military said.

The first shots came after Sarkozy agreed at a Paris summit with European leaders, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Arab League envoys to use air power to enforce the UN resolution.

"In agreement with our partners, our air force will oppose any attack by Colonel Khadafi`s planes on the people of Benghazi," Sarkozy said, referring to the Libyan rebels` bastion.

"Our planes are already preventing air strikes on the city," he said.

Sarkozy added that planes were ready to intervene against tanks that "might threaten unarmed civilians."

Around 20 warplanes were involved in operations over Libya, the French defence ministry said. France has about 100 warplanes, mainly Rafale and Mirage 2000 jets, and its aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle will steam toward the Libyan coast on Sunday.

The French air strike targeted a Libyan military vehicle that was threatening the civilian population, the French military said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron held Kadhafi responsible for the situation and said that "the time for action" by the international community had come.

"Colonel Kadhafi has made this happen. He has lied to the international community, he has promised a ceasefire, he has broken that ceasefire. He continues to brutalise his own people," Cameron told British television.

"And so the time for action has come. It needs to be urgent. We have to enforce the will of the United Nations and we cannot allow the slaughter of civilians to continue."

Sarkozy, Cameron and Clinton discussed sharing out the military roles ahead of the summit, sources said. France and Britain would focus on air strikes, while other NATO countries would police the no-fly zone, the sources said.

Western nations have called for strong Arab support for the military operation after Arab League foreign ministers called for the no-fly zone over Libya last week.

In response, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa attended the Paris summit.

Qatar and several European nations, including Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway, confirmed their will to take part in a UN-sanctioned military intervention in Libya, a diplomat said.

Speaking after the meeting, Clinton said that the aim of the UN Security Council resolution passed Thursday was "to protect civilians and to provide access for humanitarian assistance" rather than specifically topple Kadhafi.

But, she said, "certainly the conditions that will unfold as we begin to enforce this resolution will make a new environment in which people are going to act, including those around Colonel Kadhafi."

As the leaders met in Paris, a huge plume of smoke rose over Benghazi, Libya`s second city, as thousands of people fled eastward after a series of air strikes and sustained shelling, said an AFP reporter.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero said Spain would help set up the no-fly zone by providing an airborne refuelling plane and four F-18 fighters that would leave on Saturday for an Italian air base.

Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme said: "Belgium will make available F-16s currently in southern Greece."

Italy`s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi confirmed that Italian bases would be available to help enforce the no-fly zone over its former colony, adding that further Italian participation could follow.

Operational command "will probably be carried out from the NATO base in Naples", Berlusconi said, without specifying if he was referring to overall operations or the no-fly zone.

In Brussels, NATO military and diplomatic chiefs met to work out their options.  (*)