By John Irish and Elizabeth Pineau
PARIS (Reuters) - French warplanes destroyed tanks and armored vehicles of Muammar Gaddafi's forces near the rebel stronghold of Benghazi on Saturday as Western powers backed by Arab states began U.N.-mandated action to protect civilians.
President Nicolas Sarkozy said an operation supported by France, Britain, the United States and Canada, and backed by Arab nations, was halting air attacks by Gaddafi's forces and would continue until the Libyan leader's forces ceased fire.
About 20 French aircraft -- including Rafale multirole war planes, Mirage 2000 fighter jets, refueling planes and an AWACS surveillance aircraft -- were involved, French Armed Forces spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard told reporters.
The planes will counter attacks by Gaddafi's planes on Benghazi, enforcing a no-fly zone, and are ready to intervene against armored vehicles threatening civilians, Burkhard said after Sarkozy led international talks to coordinate military action authorized by the U.N. Security Council on Thursday.
"It's a grave decision we've had to take," Sarkozy said after talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Arab leaders, European Union representatives and European heads of state.
"Along with our Arab, European and North American partners, France has decided to play its part before history," he said.
The first planes left France in the morning and headed for an area 62 by 93 miles around Benghazi and the operation was still underway in the late afternoon.
"We have set up this afternoon a no-fly zone which means that around Benghazi airforce planes are preventing all flights in accordance with the U.N. resolution," said Defense Ministry Spokesman Laurent Teisseire.
A second group of planes were also in the air to monitor movements on the ground and a defense ministry official said some Libyan targets on had been destroyed. "Yes, we have destroyed a number of tanks and armored vehicles," he said, although he could not immediately confirm the exact number.
Aircraft from bases in eastern France at Saint-Dizier and Nancy as well as south of Paris in Dijon and Corsica were used in the operation and the ministry said aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle would leave for Libya around midday on Sunday.
The carrier is able to transport twenty aircraft and will be accompanied by a submarine and several frigates.
FRANCE, BRITAIN AT FOREFRONT
It was unclear whether NATO and the EU were taking a role in coordinating the mainly French operation, although Italy offered the use of a NATO base near Naples.
Sarkozy has been at the forefront of a push to intervene in Libya in recent days as Gaddafi escalated his attacks on opposition rebels which France and others support.
Cameron told reporters that Gaddafi's breaking of a ceasefire pledged on Friday made swift action essential.
"Colonel Gaddafi has made this happen. He has lied to the international community. He has promised a ceasefire. He has broken that ceasefire," he said.
"He continues to brutalize his own people and so the time for action has come," he added. "It is better to take this action than to risk the consequences of inaction, which is the further slaughter of civilians by this dictator."
Germany is not participating in the joint operation, but Berlusconi did not rule out Italian planes being used.
"For the time being we are making the bases available, but if they request it, even military intervention (is possible)," Berlusconi told reporters.
Before Sarkozy spoke, reconnaissance planes were flying over Libya as Gaddafi's troops advanced into the edge of Benghazi.
"We are doing it to protect the civilian population from the murderous madness of a regime that in killing its own people has lost all legitimacy," Sarkozy said.
"There is still time for Colonel Gaddafi to avoid the worst, by acting without delay and without reservations in accordance with all the demands of the international community. The door of international diplomacy will open again the moment attacks end."
Sources close to the talks said only France, Britain and Canada were likely to take part in initial strikes, with any participation by the United States or Arab nations coming later.
Canada said its fighter jets had only just reached the region and would need two days to prepare for any operation.
Iraq's foreign minister was at the talks, as was the Qatari prime minister and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Determined to prove its diplomatic clout after its clumsy handling of the revolt in Tunisia, Paris has sought to lead a world response to the crisis in Libya, where Gaddafi's troops outgun rag-tag and poorly armed rebel forces.
Sarkozy was the first foreign leader to recognize the opposition and drop support for Gaddafi.
NATO ambassadors met in Brussels on Saturday to discuss involvement by the 28-member military alliance in enforcing a no-fly zone, but no decision was taken. A NATO diplomat said Britain, the United States and Canada wanted NATO to take a lead in the operation but Paris was lukewarm on the idea.
"France seems to have some problem with it being a NATO operation, given NATO's reputation in the Arab world as a result of Afghanistan and given that NATO is seen as an alliance dominated by the United States," he said.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn, Keith Weir, Daniel Flynn and Vicky Buffery in Paris and David Brunnstrom in Brussels; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Sophie Hares)