French warplanes in Libyan skies to stop Gaddafi

AFP , Saturday 19 Mar 2011

French warplanes overflew Benghazi on Saturday to prevent air strikes on the rebel bastion and were ready to attack Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's tanks

As thousands fled the city in eastern Libya, French President Nicolas Sarkozy told a summit of world leaders in Paris gathered to discuss military measures threatened in a UN Security Council resolution that the French fighters were poised to attack.

Sarkozy said Gaddafi could still avoid the worst for his regime if he complied with the UN resolution by halting the fighting to allow the diplomatic door to reopen.

But Gaddafi earlier gave a defiant response to the threats, telling Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron, main sponsors of Friday's UN resolution, that they would regret interfering in his country's affairs.

And he told US President Barack Obama that the Libyan people were "prepared to die for me - men, women and children," a government spokesman said, reading out letters from Gaddafi to the three world leaders.

A French military source said French Rafale fighter jets on Saturday were overflying "all Libyan territory" on reconnaissance missions and had so far encountered no problems.

"In agreement with our partners, our air force will oppose any attack by Colonel Gaddafi's planes on the people of Benghazi. Our planes are already preventing air strikes on the city," Sarkozy said.

"Already other planes, French, are ready to intervene against tanks that might threaten unarmed civilians."

Libya's ex-interior minister Abdel Fatah Yunes, who has defected to the rebel camp, thanked France whose warplanes he said were carrying out reconnaissance flights over Libya.

"Welcome to them and thanks, although I had wished there were Arab warplanes," he told Al-Arabiya television.

Earlier, a huge plume of smoke rose over Benghazi, Libya's second city, as thousands of people fled eastward after a series of air strikes and sustained shelling, said an AFP reporter in the metropolis of one million people.

Correspondents redeployed to Al-Marj, 100 kilometres from Benghazi, reported that tanks of Gaddafi's military forces had entered the Mediterranean city by mid-morning.

A warplane crashed in flames in a residential area of Benghazi, triggering celebratory gunfire from the rebels, but an insurgent commander later admitted it was one of theirs and had been shot down by Gaddafi's forces.

The Libyan government has since Friday insisted it was observing a self-declared ceasefire, shortly after the Security Council voted to authorise the use of force against Gaddafi's troops to spare civilians.

The regime said its armed forces were under attack west of Benghazi, including by rebel aircraft, and had responded in self-defence.

But the rebels, who have been trying to overthrow the Libyan leader for more than a month, said government troops had continued to bombard cities, violating the ceasefire continuously.

"Left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Gaddafi would commit atrocities against his people," US President Barack Obama said on Friday. "Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue."

Libyan Foreign Minister Mussa Kussa said Tripoli had met all its obligations under the UN resolution and asked UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to send observers to monitor the ceasefire.

Ban attended what host France said would be a "decisive" summit in Paris with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as well as countries in the European Union, Arab League and African Union.

Sarkozy, Clinton and Cameron met ahead of the conference, focusing on sharing out the military roles in enforcing Resolution 1973, sources said.

Late on Friday, the French presidency said France, Britain, the United States and Arab countries demanded "that a ceasefire must be put in place immediately, that is, that all attacks against civilians must come to an end."

It added that "Gaddafi must end his troops' advance on Benghazi and withdraw from Ajdabiya, Misrata and Zawiyah," referring to rebel-held towns attacked or captured by government forces in past days.

"That is not negotiable," it said, warning that if Gaddafi did not comply with Resolution 1973, he would face "consequences" from the international community and "the resolution will be imposed by military means".

Rebels in Misrata said the city east of Tripoli was calm on Saturday, a day after they beat back an onslaught by Gaddafi forces, destroying heavy armour but suffering 27 casualties.

But a witness said government tanks had shelled rebel-held Zintan, 120 kilometres southwest of Tripoli.

Meanwhile, Libyan National Oil Corp chairman Shukri Ghanem said Tripoli would honour all its engagements and contracts with foreign oil companies working in the country.

Ghanem told a press conference in Tripoli that Libyan oil production currently stood at 400,000 barrels per day, less than a third of normal output, as a result of the armed revolt.

In another Middle East hotspot, medics in Yemen on Saturday raised to 52 the death toll from a sniper attack on protesters in Sanaa the previous day, as thousands rallied despite a state of emergency.

The slaughter in Sanaa on Friday was the bloodiest day in weeks of unrest that have shaken the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a key US ally in the war against Al-Qaeda.

And in Syria security forces fired tear gas on Saturday at mourners burying two men killed in a protest in the southern city of Daraa the previous day, wounding several, rights activists said.

The official SANA news agency said a committee was being formed to investigate the "regrettable" events in Daraa.

In Bahrain, beleaguered King Hamad pledged to bring in reforms as Shiite-led pro-democracy protesters against the Sunni monarchy said they would not give up despite being cleared by police from Pearl Square in central Manama.

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