Allies launch Libya force as Gadhafi hits rebels

By RYAN LUCAS and HADEEL AL-SHALCHI
The Associated Press
Sunday, March 20, 2011; 12:10 AM

BENGHAZI, Libya -- The U.S. and European nations pounded Moammar Gadhafi's forces and air defenses with cruise missiles and airstrikes Saturday, launching the broadest international military effort since the Iraq war in support of an uprising that had seemed on the verge of defeat. Libyan state TV claimed 48 people had been killed in the attacks, but the report could not be independently verified.

The longtime Libyan leader vowed to defend his country from what he called "crusader aggression" and warned the involvement of international forces will subject the Mediterranean and North African region to danger and put civilians at risk.

The U.S. military said 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from American and British ships and submarines at more than 20 coastal targets to clear the way for air patrols to ground Libya's air force. French fighter jets fired the first salvos, carrying out several strikes in the rebel-held east, while British fighter jets also bombarded the North African nation.

The strikes, which were aimed at enforcing a U.N.-mandated no-fly zone, were a sharp escalation in the international effort to stop Gadhafi after weeks of pleading by the rebels who have seen early gains reversed as the regime unleashed the full force of its superior air power and weaponry.

President Barack Obama said military action was not his first choice and reiterated that he would not send American ground troops to Libya.

"This is not an outcome the U.S. or any of our partners sought," Obama said from Brazil, where he is starting a five-day visit to Latin America. "We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy."

Thousands of regime supporters, meanwhile, packed into the sprawling Bab al-Aziziya military camp in Tripoli where Gadhafi lives to protect against attacks.

Explosions continued to rock the coastal cities, including Tripoli, where anti-aircraft guns could be heard firing overnight in Tripoli.

Libyan TV quoted the armed forces command as saying 48 people were killed and 150 wounded in the allied assault. It said most of the casualties were children but gave no more details.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was "deeply concerned" about civilians' safety and called on all sides "to abide strictly by the rules and principles of international humanitarian law" by distinguishing between civilians and fighters and allowing safe access for humanitarian organizations.

Gadhafi, who has ruled Libya for 41 years, said in a telephone call to Libyan state TV that he was opening weapons depots to allow his people to arm themselves in defense.

He said the international action against his forces was unjustified, calling it "simply a colonial crusader aggression that may ignite another large-scale crusader war."


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