TRIPOLI – US, British and French forces have hammered Libya from the air and sea, prompting leader Moamer Kadhafi to warn on Sunday of a long war in the Mediterranean “battlefield”.
The US military said the first stage of coalition raids under a UN Security Council remit to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya had been “successful” and Kadhafi’s offensive on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi stopped in its tracks.
In Benghazi itself, medics and AFP correspondents said at least 94 people had died in an assault launched on Friday on the Mediterranean city by forces loyal to Kadhafi before the coalition onslaught.
In the West’s biggest intervention in the Arab world since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, mounted exactly eight years earlier, US warships and a British submarine fired more than 120 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Libya on Saturday, the US military said.
Top US military commander Michael Mullen said the initial part of the coalition’s campaign “has been successful,” and that Kadhafi’s forces “are no longer marching on Benghazi.”
And Admiral William Gortney told reporters at the Pentagon that the cruise missiles “struck more than 20 integrated air defence systems and other air defence facilities ashore.”
Nineteen US planes, including three B2 stealth bombers, took part in early morning raids Sunday, the Germany-based US Africa Command said.
Command spokesman Kenneth Fidler said F15 and F16 fighters were used in the raids on Libyan “integrated air defence systems,” and he put the number of Tomahawk missiles fired by the United States and Britain on Saturday at 124.
In dawn raids, B-2 stealth bombers dropped 40 bombs on a major Libyan airfield in an attempt to destroy much of the Libyan Air Force, other US military officials said.
On the ground, AFP correspondents and rebels said dozens of Libyan government military vehicles, including tanks, were destroyed on Sunday morning in air strikes west of Benghazi.
The bodies of African fighters in khaki-coloured uniforms could be seen amid a pile of smashed up tanks and burned artillery cannons at a site 35 kilometres (20 miles) from Benghazi, the sources said.
According to the rebels, French warplanes led coalition air strikes on the site for two hours from 0330 GMT on Sunday.
A furious Kadhafi, whose country insists the attacks came despite its announced ceasefire, said on Sunday that all Libyans were armed and ready to fight until victory against what Tripoli has branded a “barbaric aggression.”
“We promise you a long, drawn-out war with no limits,” said the Libyan leader, who was speaking on state television for a second straight day without appearing in front of camera.
The leaders of Britain, France and the United States will “fall like Hitler… Mussolini,” warned the strongman of oil-rich Libya who has ruled for four decades but been confronted with an armed uprising since mid-February.
“America, France, or Britain, the Christians that are in a pact against us today, they will not enjoy our oil,” he said. “We do not have to retreat from the battlefield because we are defending our land and our dignity.”
US President Barack Obama said the “Odyssey Dawn” operation launched under a UN Security Council resolution was a “limited military action,” unlike the regime change aims of the war against Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
He pledged no US troops would be deployed on the ground.
With the resolution backed by the Arab League, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani defended Doha’s declared participation in the strikes on a fellow Arab state, saying the sole aim was to “stop the bloodbath.”
AFP journalists reported a lull in the air strikes on Tripoli and that residents who had fled Benghazi were seen returning to the rebels’ capital in eastern Libya.
But as Libya reported at least 48 dead in the West’s air strikes, medics in Benghazi said 85 civilians and rebels were killed in fighting with Kadhafi’s forces on Friday and Saturday.
Separately, AFP correspondents counted nine bodies of Kadhafi loyalists in a Benghazi hospital and more dead were expected to be brought in.
Britain said it was taking “every precaution” to avoid civilian casualties. “We should treat with some caution some of the things we see on Libyan state television,” Finance Minister George Osborne told BBC television.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon said Kadhafi was now feeling the “unified will” of the international community through the military campaign.
“He has been killing his own people. He declared that he will search house to house and kill all the people. That is unacceptable,” the UN secretary general told AFP in Paris.
The barrage came after the Security Council passed Resolution 1973 on Thursday authorising military action to prevent Kadhafi’s forces from attacking civilians.
An AFP correspondent said bombs were dropped early Sunday in the greater Tripoli area, prompting barrages of anti-aircraft fire from Libyan forces in Bab al-Aziziyah, Kadhafi’s headquarters in the capital.
State television showed footage of hundreds of Kadhafi supporters who it said had gathered earlier to serve as human shields at Bab al-Aziziyah and at the capital’s international airport.
A Libyan official said at least 48 people were killed and 150 injured — mainly women and children — in the assaults, which began with a strike at 1645 GMT on Saturday by a French warplane.
State media said Western warplanes had on Saturday night bombed civilian targets in Tripoli, while an army spokesman said strikes also hit fuel tanks feeding the rebel-held city of Misrata, east of Tripoli.
Kadhafi, in a brief audio message on Saturday night also broadcast on state television, fiercely denounced the attacks as a “barbaric, unjustified Crusaders’ aggression.”
He vowed retaliatory strikes on military and civilian targets in the Mediterranean, which he said had been turned into a “real battlefield.”
Libya’s foreign ministry said that following the attacks, it regarded as invalid the UN resolution ordering a ceasefire by its forces and demanded an urgent meeting of the Security Council.
Resolution 1973 authorised the use of “all necessary means” to protect civilians and enforce a ceasefire and no-fly zone against Kadhafi’s forces.
On Friday, Libya declared a ceasefire in its battle to crush the armed revolt against Kadhafi’s regime which began on February 15 and said it had grounded its warplanes.
But the rebels said government troops had continued to bombard cities, violating its ceasefire.
Russia expressed regret over the attacks and said Resolution 1973 was “adopted in haste,” while the African Union, which has opposed military action, on Sunday called for an “immediate stop” to all attacks.
China also voiced regret over the air strikes, saying it opposed the use of force in international relations.
But British Prime Minister David Cameron said he held Kadhafi was to blame for the escalation.
“We have all seen the appalling brutality that Colonel Kadhafi has meted out against his own people and far from introducing the ceasefire he spoke about he has actually stepped up the attacks and the brutality,” said Cameron.
Elsewhere in the unrest-wracked Middle East, tens of thousands of people gathered in Sanaa on Sunday for the funerals of some of the 52 people killed in a bloody crackdown on protesters by loyalists of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.