By HADEEL AL-SHALCHI and RYAN LUCAS
The Associated Press
Saturday, March 19, 2011; 4:13 PM
BENGHAZI, Libya -- French fighter jets fired the first shots at Moammar Gadhafi's troops on Saturday, launching the broadest international military effort since the Iraq war in support of an uprising that had seemed on the verge of defeat.
In the hours before the no-fly zone over Libya went into effect, Gadhafi sent warplanes, tanks and troops into Benghazi, the rebel capital and first city to fall to the rebellion that began Feb. 15. Then the government attacks appeared to go silent.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said after an emergency summit in Paris that French jets were already targeting Gadhafi's forces. The 22 participants in Saturday's summit agreed to do everything necessary to make Gadhafi respect a U.N. Security Council resolution Thursday demanding a cease-fire, Sarkozy said.
"Our consensus was strong, and our resolve is clear. The people of Libya must be protected, and in the absence of an immediate end to the violence against civilians our coalition is prepared to act, and to act with urgency," President Barack Obama said in Brasilia, Brazil, on the first day of a three-country Latin American tour.
The rebels, who have seen their advances into western Libya turn into a series of defeats, said they had hoped for more, sooner from the international community, after a day when crashing shells shook the buildings of Benghazi and Gadhafi's tanks rumbled through the university campus.
"People are disappointed, they haven't seen any action yet. The leadership understands some of the difficulties with procedures but when it comes to procedures versus human lives the choice is clear," said Essam Gheriani, a spokesman for the opposition. "People on the streets are saying where are the international forces? Is the international community waiting for the same crimes to be perpetrated on Benghazi has have been done by Gadhafi in the other cities?"
A doctor said 27 bodies had reached hospitals by midday. As night fell, though, the streets grew quiet.
Libyan state television showed Gadhafi supporters converging on the international airport and a military garrison in Tripoli, and the airport in Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, in an apparent attempt to deter bombing.
In an open letter, Gadhafi warned: "You will regret it if you dare to intervene in our country."
In Paris, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Gadhafi's government had lost all legitimacy and lied about the cease-fire.
"We have every reason to fear that left unchecked, Gadhafi will commit unspeakable atrocities," she said.
Saturday's emergency meeting involved 22 leaders and top officials, including Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and the foreign ministers of Jordan, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. It was the largest international military action since the beginning of the Iraq war, launched almost exactly eight years ago.
Earlier Saturday, a plane was shot down over the outskirts of Benghazi, sending up a massive black cloud of smoke. An Associated Press reporter saw the plane go down in flames and heard the sound of artillery and crackling gunfire.
Before the plane went down, journalists heard what appeared to be airstrikes from it. Rebels cheered and celebrated at the crash, though the government denied a plane had gone down - or that any towns were shelled on Saturday.
The fighting galvanized the people of Benghazi, with young men collecting bottles to make gasoline bombs. Some residents dragged bed frames and metal scraps into the streets to make roadblocks.
"This city is a symbol of the revolution, it's where it started and where it will end if this city falls," said Gheriani.
But at Jalaa hospital, where the tile floors and walls were stained with blood, the toll was clear.
"There are more dead than injured," said Dr. Ahmed Radwan, an Egyptian who had been there helping for three weeks.
Jalaa's Dr. Gebreil Hewadi, a member of the rebel health committee, said city hospitals had received 27 bodies.
At a news conference in the capital, Tripoli, the government spokesman read letters from Gadhafi to Obama and others involved in the international effort.
"Libya is not yours. Libya is for the Libyans. The Security Council resolution is invalid," he said in the letter to Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.
To Obama, the Libyan leader was slightly more conciliatory: "If you had found them taking over American cities with armed force, tell me what you would do."
In a joint statement to Gadhafi late Friday, the United States, Britain and France - backed by unspecified Arab countries - called on Gadhafi to end his troops' advance toward Benghazi and pull them out of the cities of Misrata, Ajdabiya and Zawiya. It also called for the restoration of water, electricity and gas services in all areas. It said Libyans must be able to receive humanitarian aid or the "international community will make him suffer the consequences" with military action.
Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa said that Libyan officials had informed the U.N. and the Security Council that the government was abiding by the cease-fire it had announced Friday and called for a team of foreign observers to verify that.
"The nation is respecting all the commitments put on it by the international community," he said, leaving the podium before answering any questions about Benghazi.
In the course of the rebellion, Libya has gone from a once-promising economy with the largest proven oil reserves in Africa to a country in turmoil. The foreign workers that underpinned the oil industry have fled; production and exports have all but ground to a halt; and its currency is down 30 percent in just two weeks.
The oil minister, Shukri Ghanem, held a news conference calling on foreign oil companies to send back their workers. He said the government would honor all its contracts.
"We are still considering all our contracts and agreements with the oil companies valid," he said. "We hope from their part that they will honor their agreements, that they will send back their experts and their people to work."
He suggested future decisions on oil deals would favor countries that did not join the international force against Gadhafi: "A friend in need is a friend indeed," he told reporters in Tripoli.
Italy, which had been the main buyer for Libyan oil, offered the use of seven air and navy bases already housing U.S., NATO and Italian forces to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya.
Italy's defense minister, Ignazio La Russa, said Saturday that Italy wasn't just "renting out" its bases for others to use but was prepared to offer "moderate but determined" military support.
A French fighter jet fired Saturday on a Libyan military vehicle, the first reported offensive action in the international military operation against Gadhafi's forces, French Defense Ministry spokesman Thierry Burkhard said.
Warplanes from the United States, Canada, Denmark arrived at Italian air bases Saturday as part of an international military buildup. Germany backed the operation but isn't offering its own forces.
American ships and aircraft stationed in and around the Mediterranean Sea did not participate in the initial French air missions, but the U.S. prepared to a launch a missile attack on Libyan air defenses later Saturday, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the unfolding intervention. Both officials spoke on condition of because of the sensitivity of military operations.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said after the summit: "The time for action has come, it needs to be urgent."
Al-Shalchi contributed from Tripoli, Libya. Associated Press writers Ben Hubbard in Cairo; Nicole Winfield in Rome; Jamey Keaten in Paris; and Robert Burns in Washington also contributed to this report.