French warplane opens fire on Libya

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A French warplane opened fire on a target in Libya on Saturday, kicking off a coordinated international campaign to prevent strongman Moamer Kadhafi's forces from crushing an uprising.

"We opened fire at 5:45 pm (1645 GMT) on an unspecified vehicle," army spokesman Colonel Thierry Burckhard told journalists, adding that the French military was "assured of the threat" to Libyan civilians posed by the vehicle.

Earlier, Libyan state television said hundreds of people had gathered at Bab al-Aziziyah, Kadhafi's headquarters in Tripoli, and at the capital's international airport, ahead of expected French air strikes.

"Crowds are forming around the targets identified by France," state television said, showing pictures of flag-waving people gathering to serve as human shields.

In the rebel camp, celebratory gunfire and honking of car horns broke out in Al-Marj, 100 kilometres from Benghazi, to welcome the first air strike, correspondents said.

A high-placed French source last week referred to Bab al-Aziziya, a military air base in Sirte, east of the capital, and another in Sebha in the south as likely targets of a strike.

And as thousands were fleeing the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in eastern Libya, French President Nicolas Sarkozy told a summit of world leaders in Paris that French fighters were poised to attack.

But Sarkozy said Kadhafi could still avoid the worst if he complied with the UN resolution by halting the fighting to allow the diplomatic door to reopen.

Kadhafi had given a defiant response to the threats, telling Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron, main sponsors of Thursday'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 Kadhafi to the three world leaders.

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

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

The French defence ministry also said that the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle was being sent toward Libya to help enforce the Security Council resolution.

Libya's ex-interior minister Abdel Fatah Yunes, who defected to the rebel camp at the beginning of March, 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.

Yunes also denied a state media report that he has returned to the government camp, in remarks to Al-Arabiya television.

"We are still in the battlefield, fighting with what we've got in our hands and if we receive reinforcements, all the better," he said.

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 reported that Kadhafi tanks 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 Kadhafi's forces.

Since Friday, the Libyan government has insisted it was observing a self-declared ceasefire, shortly after the Security Council voted to authorise the use of force against Kadhafi'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 Kadhafi 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 "Kadhafi 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 Kadhafi did not comply with Resolution 1973, he would face "consequences" from the international community and "the resolution will be imposed by military means".

Speaking in Brazil, where he is on a visit, Obama said Saturday that "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 act with urgency."

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

But a witness said government tanks had shelled rebel-held Zintan, 120 kilometres (75 miles) 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 said 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 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.

© 2011 AFP

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