France fires first shots against Libya after Gaddafi's forces enter Benghazi

By Liz Sly, Sudarsan Raghavan and Joby Warrick
Saturday, March 19, 2011; 3:29 PM

TRIPOLI, LIBYA - French fighter jets streaking over Libya on Saturday bombed a military vehicle and walled off a 600-square-mile sanctuary over the eastern city of Benghazi in the first military engagements in support of the no-fly zone authorized two days ago by the U.N. Security Council.

A French military spokesman confirmed the attack on units loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi and said about 20 French planes were patrolling the skies over rebel-held Benghazi to halt an apparent effort by the Libyan army to quickly crush the opposition before foreign forces could intervene.

"A first target was engaged and destroyed," the spokesman said. Local broadcast reports that four Libyan tanks had also been destroyed by French aircraft could not be independently confirmed.

The first shots fired in the U.N.-backed campaign came shortly after French President Nicolas Sarkozy confirmed in a televised address that French warplanes had entered Libyan airspace to prevent Gaddafi's "murderous madness" against Libyan civilians.

"Today we are intervening in Libya with a U.N. Security Council mandate," Sarkozy said.

The rapid deployment of warplanes came as Gaddafi appeared to defy U.N. demands for a cease-fire by escalating attacks against rebels dug in around Benghazi, a city of about 1 million people and the largest remaining opposition stronghold.

The French warplanes are expected to be joined in coming days by aircraft and logistical support from Britain, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and other countries under a U.N. mandate authorizing a broad use of force to prevent the slaughter of Libyan citizens.

Sarkozy spoke at the close of an emergency meeting in Paris that was described as an effort to project international unity and resolve against Gaddafi. U.S. officials had said that the meeting in Paris, which drew leaders from 22 countries, among them Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, would focus on developments in Libya and the next steps to take.

An administration official, speaking shortly before the news broke about the French intervention, said all the leaders recognized the urgency of the situation in eastern Libya.

"We've made clear what our expectations are, and we have also made clear that the international community is prepared to act if he doesn't meet those expectations," the official said.

Forces loyal to Gaddafi entered the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi early in the day after shelling and fierce fighting, a fresh act of defiance of U.N. calls for a cease-fire. Government troops in tanks and trucks entered Benghazi from the southwest, in the university area, and began to shell the city, including civilian areas. Intense fighting broke out in some enclaves. The city quickly became a ghost town, with residents fleeing or seeking cover in barricaded neighborhoods.

A warplane crashed down over Benghazi, and rebel leaders later claimed it as one of theirs. Although they said mechanical problems caused the crash, calls from mosques across the city suggested that friendly fire brought down the plane. "Don't attack the airplanes, because these are our planes," a mosque preacher urged over loudspeakers.

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