By Mohammed Abbas
BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Allied warplanes have gone into in action to stop Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces attacking the rebel-held city of Benghazi, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Saturday.
Gaddafi's troops on Saturday morning pushed into the outskirts of Benghazi, a city of 670,000 people, in an apparent attempt to pre-empt Western military intervention expected after a meeting of Western and Arab leaders in Paris.
But as the meeting ended, Sarkozy announced that allied air forces had already gone into action.
"It's a grave decision we've had to take," Sarkozy said after meeting British Prime Minister David Cameron, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other leaders in Paris.
"Along with our Arab, European and North American partners, France has decided to play its part before history."
Sarkozy said of the meeting: "Those taking part agreed to put in place all necessary means, especially military, to enforce the decisions of the United Nations Security Council.
"This is why, in agreement with our partners, our air forces will counter any aggression by Colonel Gaddafi's aircraft against the population of Benghazi," he said.
"As of now, other French aircraft are ready to intervene against armored vehicles which threaten unarmed civilians."
Military action could be halted at any time if Gaddafi stopped his forces attacking, Sarkozy said.
"Colonel Gaddafi has made this happen," British Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters after the meeting. "He has lied to the international community, he has promised a ceasefire, he has broken that ceasefire ... We cannot allow the slaughter of civilians to continue."
Gaddafi said Western powers had no right to intervene.
"This is injustice, this is clear aggression," government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim quoted Gaddafi as saying in a letter to France, Britain and the United Nations. "You will regret it if you take a step toward interfering in our internal affairs."
The Libyan government blamed the rebels, who it says are members of al Qaeda, for breaking the ceasefire around Benghazi.
A large crowd of Gaddafi supporters waving green Libyan flags and portraits of the leader gathered outside his house in Tripoli, in an apparent move to discourage foreign airstrikes.
THOUSANDS FLEE BENGHAZI
A large plume of black smoke rose from the edge of Benghazi mid-afternoon, live television pictures showed, but it was not clear what was causing the fire.
Residents set up make-shift barricades with furniture, benches, road signs and even a barbecue in one case at intervals along main streets. Each barricade was manned by half a dozen rebels, but only about half of those were armed.
Hundreds of cars full of refugees fled Benghazi toward the Egyptian border after the city came under a bombardment overnight. One family of 13 women from a grandmother to small children, rested at a roadside hotel.
"I'm here because when the bombing started last night my children were vomiting from fear," said one of them, a doctor. "All I want to do is get my family to a safe place and then get back to Benghazi to help. My husband is still there."
In the besieged western city of Misrata, residents said government forces shelled the rebel town again on Saturday and they were facing a humanitarian crisis as water supplies had been cut off for a third day.
"I am telling you, we are scared and we are alone," a Misrata resident, called Saadoun, told Reuters by telephone.
PLANE SHOT DOWN
As explosions shook Benghazi on Saturday morning, rebels said they were forced to retreat from the outskirts of the city, but later claimed victory after holding back the advance.
"We revolutionaries have taken control of four tanks inside Benghazi. Rebel forces have pushed Gaddafi's forces out of Benghazi," said Nasr al-Kikili, a lawyer who works for the rebel media center in Benghazi, as crowds celebrated by firing guns in the air and parading on top of a tank.
An unidentified warplane was shot down over Benghazi.
"I saw the plane circle around, come out of the clouds, head toward an apparent target, and then it was hit and went straight down in flames and a huge billow of black smoke went up," Reuters correspondent Angus MacSwan said.
"It seems it was attacking the Benghazi military barracks."
Al Jazeera said there were 26 dead and more than 40 wounded in Jala hospital in Benghazi, without giving further details.
U.S. President Barack Obama has made clear any military action would aim to change conditions across Libya, rather than just in the rebel-held east, by calling on Gaddafi's forces to pull back from the western cities of Zawiyah and Misrata as well as from the east.
"Gaddafi must stop his troops from advancing on Benghazi, pull them back from Ajdabiya, Misrata and Zawiyah, and establish water, electricity and gas supplies to all areas. Humanitarian assistance must be allowed to reach the people of Libya," Obama said on Friday.
(Reporting by Mohammed Abbas and Angus MacSwan in Benghazi, Tom Perry in Cairo, Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy in Tripoli, Hamid Ould Ahmed and Christian Lowe in Algiers; Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Giles Elgood)