By Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - European and U.S. forces unleashed warplanes and cruise missiles against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces in the biggest Western military intervention in the Arab world since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The strikes halted the advance of Gaddafi's troops on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and a no-fly zone was now in place over Libya with government air defenses "taken out" and no sign of Libyan aircraft in flight, the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, told NBC.
Gaddafi said the raids amounted to terrorism and Libyan state television said 48 people had been killed and 150 wounded in the Western air strikes. It also said there had been a fresh wave of strikes on Tripoli early on Sunday.
There was no way to independently verify the reports.
French planes fired the first shots on Saturday, destroying tanks and armored vehicles near Benghazi in a United Nations-endorsed intervention to force Gaddafi's troops to cease fire and end attacks on civilians who launched an uprising last month against his 41-year rule.
French warplanes were in the skies above Libya again on Sunday, an armed forces source said. Britain said its planes had targeted Libya's air defenses mainly around the capital Tripoli.
The burned and shattered remains of government military vehicles littered the main road into Benghazi on Sunday as the rebels advanced back toward the strategic town of Ajdabiyah they lost last week.
Some 14 tanks, 20 troop carriers, two trucks with multiple rocket launchers and dozens of pick-ups were all destroyed. Some still smouldered. Fourteen bodies lay in the desert next to the vehicles, though the scale of the bombardment made identifying bodies difficult as munitions exploded in the flames.
"Gaddafi is like a chicken and the coalition is plucking his feathers so he can't fly. The revolutionaries will slit his neck," said Fathi Bin Saud, a 52-year-old rebel carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, surveying the wreckage.
U.S. and British warships and submarines launched 110 Tomahawk missiles overnight against air defenses around the capital Tripoli and the western city of Misrata, which has been besieged by Gaddafi's forces, U.S. military officials said.
They said U.S. forces and planes were working with Britain, France, Canada and Italy in operation "Odyssey Dawn." Denmark said it had four fighter planes ready to join in on Sunday and was awaiting U.S. instructions.
Gaddafi said all Libyans had now been armed to defend the country and Western defeat was inevitable.
"We will not leave our land and we will liberate it," he said in a speech on state television. "We will remain alive and you will all die."
China and Russia, which abstained in the U.N. Security Council vote last week endorsing intervention, expressed regret at the military action. China's Foreign Ministry said it hoped the conflict would not lead to a greater loss of civilian life.
Explosions and heavy anti-aircraft fire rattled Tripoli in the early hours of Sunday. Defiant cries of "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest) echoed around the city center.
Libyan state television showed footage from an unidentified hospital of what it called victims of the "colonial enemy." Ten bodies were wrapped up in white and blue bed sheets, and several people were wounded, one of them badly, the television said.
Tripoli residents said they had heard an explosion near the eastern Tajoura district, while in Misrata they said strikes had targeted an airbase used by Gaddafi's forces. Gaddafi's troops were still surrounding Misrata on Sunday, a resident said, and government snipers were posted on rooftops in the city center.
"They seem to be ready to fire at anything that moves," the resident, named Mohammed, told Reuters.
A Reuters witness in the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi reported loud explosions and anti-aircraft fire during the night, but it was unclear which side was shooting.
The intervention, after weeks of diplomatic wrangling, was welcomed in Benghazi with a mix of apprehension and relief.
"We think this will end Gaddafi's rule. Libyans will never forget France's stand with them. If it weren't for them, then Benghazi would have been overrun tonight," said Iyad Ali, 37.
"We salute France, Britain, the United States and the Arab countries for standing with Libya. But we think Gaddafi will take out his anger on civilians. So the West has to hit him hard," said civil servant Khalid al-Ghurfaly, 38.
Benghazi's main hospital was filled with men, women and children wounded in Saturday's assault on the city by Gaddafi's forces. There were 24 bodies, including eight government troops, visible in the morgue, and more were stored in refrigerators.
GADDAFI SEEN LOSING GRIP ON LIBYA
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the allies had agreed to use "all necessary means, especially military" to enforce the Security Council resolution for an end to attacks on civilians.
"Colonel Gaddafi has made this happen," British Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters on Saturday. "We cannot allow the slaughter of civilians to continue."
Some analysts have questioned the strategy for the military intervention, fearing Western forces might be sucked into a long civil war despite a U.S. insistence, repeated on Saturday, that it has no plans to send ground troops into Libya.
But analysts have questioned what Western powers will do if the Libyan leader digs in, especially since they do not believe they would be satisfied with a de facto partition which left rebels in the east and Gaddafi running a rump state in the west.
One participant at the Paris meeting that preceded the start of Western military action on Saturday said Clinton and others had stressed Libya should not be split in two. And on Friday, President Barack Obama specifically called on Gaddafi's forces to pull back from the western cities of Zawiyah and Misrata as well from the east.
"It's going to be far less straightforward if Gaddafi starts to move troops into the cities, which is what he has been trying to do for the past 24 hours," said Marko Papic at the STRATFOR global intelligence group.
"Once he does that it becomes a little bit more of an urban combat environment and at that point it's going to be difficult to use air power from 15,000 feet to neutralize that."
France and Britain have taken a lead role in pushing for international intervention in Libya. The United States, after embarking on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, acknowledged on Saturday it was in charge of operations but said it intended to switch to a "coalition command" in the coming days.
(Reporting by Mohammed Abbas and Angus MacSwan in Benghazi, Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy in Tripoli, Hamid Ould Ahmed and Christian Lowe in Algiers; Tom Perry in Cairo, John Irish and Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, Missy Ryan in Washington, Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)