West's strikes on Libya hit Arab League criticism

Reuters News
|
Posted: Mar 21, 2011 12:08 PM

By Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Western forces pounded Libya's air defences and patrolled its skies on Sunday, but their day-old intervention hit a serious diplomatic setback as the Arab League chief condemned the "bombardment of civilians."

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi vowed to defeat the Western powers' "terrorism" and sent his troops and tanks into the rebel-held coastal city of Misrata, residents said.

European and U.S. forces unleashed warplanes and cruise missiles against Gaddafi on Saturday in a United Nations-backed intervention to prevent the veteran leader from killing civilians as he fights an uprising against his 41-year rule.

But Arab League chief Amr Moussa said what was happening was not what Arabs had envisaged when they called for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya.

"What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians," he said.

In comments carried by Egypt's official state news agency, Moussa also said he was calling for an emergency Arab League meeting.

Arab backing for a no-fly zone provided crucial underpinning for the passage of the U.N. Security Council resolution last week that paved the way for the Western intervention, the biggest against an Arab country since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Withdrawal of that support would make it much harder to pursue what some defense analysts say could in any case be a difficult, open-ended campaign with an uncertain outcome.

The U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said the no-fly zone was effectively in place. But he told CBS the endgame of military action was "very uncertain" and acknowledged it could end in a stalemate with Gaddafi.

Mullen said he had seen no reports of civilian casualties from the Western strikes. But Russia said there had been such casualties and called on Britain, France and the United States to halt the "non-selective use of force."

The aerial assault stopped in its tracks the advance by Gaddafi's troops into the eastern city of Benghazi, and left the burned and shattered remains of his tanks and troop carriers littering the main road outside the rebel stronghold.

The charred bodies of at least 14 government soldiers lay scattered in the desert.

"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.

Gaddafi said the raids amounted to terrorism and vowed to fight to the death. "We will not leave our land and we will liberate it," he said on state television. "We will remain alive and you will all die."

A Libyan government health official said the death toll from the Western air strikes had risen to 64 on Sunday after some of the wounded died. But it was impossible to independently verify the reports as government minders refused to take Western reporters in the capital Tripoli to the site of the bombings.

Residents said forces loyal to Gaddafi entered the center of the rebel-held city of Misrata on Sunday with tanks, and several people had been killed by gunfire. "Two people were killed so far today by snipers. They (snipers) are still on the rooftops. They are backed with four tanks, which have been patrolling the town. It's getting very difficult for people to come out," one resident, called Sami, told Reuters by telephone.

"There are also boats encircling the port and preventing aid from reaching the town."

Abdelbasset, a spokesman for the rebels in Misrata, told Reuters: "There is fighting between the rebels and Gaddafi's forces. Their tanks are in the center of Misrata ... There are so many casualties we cannot count them."

"ODYSSEY DAWN"

French planes fired the first shots of the intervention on Saturday, destroying tanks and armored vehicles near Benghazi. The eastern city is the cradle of the anti-Gaddafi revolt that started last month, inspired by Arab uprisings that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.

France sent an aircraft carrier toward Libya and its planes were over the country again on Sunday, defense officials said. Britain said its planes had targeted Libya's air defences mainly around the capital Tripoli.

U.S. and British warships and submarines launched 110 Tomahawk missiles overnight against air defences around the capital Tripoli and Misrata, 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. Libya's state news agency said more than a million men and women would be armed.

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.

The mood in Tripoli turned markedly anti-Western, and crowds shouted defiant slogans and shot in the air.

APPREHENSION AND RELIEF

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.

The Western intervention, after weeks of diplomatic wrangling, was welcomed in Benghazi with a mix of apprehension and relief.

"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.

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.

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.

(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 Mark Trevelyan and Jon Hemming)