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.
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.
The British defense secretary, Liam Fox, said in a statement that Tornado GR4 fast jets flew 3,000 miles from Royal Air Force Station Marham in Norfolk, England, and back, making it the RAF’s longest-range bombing mission since the 1982 Falklands conflict. The jets launched Stormshadow missiles, while a Trafalgar submarine launched Tomahawk cruise missiles.
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.
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.”
He also said the U.N. Security Council and the international community were responsible for “stopping this unjust flagrant aggression against a sovereign country immediately.”
His regime also acted quickly in the run-up to the strikes, sending warplanes, tanks and troops into the eastern city of Benghazi, the rebel capital and first city to fall to the rebellion that began Feb. 15. Then the government attacks appeared to go silent.
Operation Odyssey Dawn, as the allied assault has been dubbed, followed an emergency summit in Paris on Saturday, during which the 22 leaders and top officials agreed to do everything necessary to make Gadhafi respect a U.N. Security Council resolution Thursday calling for the no-fly zone and demanding a cease-fire, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said.
Navy Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, told reporters in Washington that U.S. ships and a British submarine had launched the first phase of a missile assault on Libyan air defenses to clear the way for the imposition of a U.N.-mandated no-fly zone over the North African country.
Gortney said the mission has two goals: prevent further attacks by Libyan forces on rebels and civilians, and degrade the Libyan military’s ability to contest a no-fly zone.
Defense officials cautioned it was too early to fully gauge the impact of the onslaught. But a senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the mission was ongoing, said the Americans felt that Libya’s air defenses had been heavily damaged given the precision targeting of the cruise missiles.
About 20 French fighter jets carried out “several strikes” earlier Saturday, military spokesman Thierry Burkhard told the Associated Press. He said earlier that one of the planes had fired the first shot against a Libyan military vehicle.
“All our planes have returned to base tonight,” he said, and denied a Libyan TV report that a French plane had been hit.
He would not elaborate on what was hit or where, but said French forces are focusing on the Benghazi area and U.S. forces are focused in the west.
Libyan regime official Mohammed al-Zwei said a large number of civilians were injured when several civilian and military sites in the capital, Tripoli, and the nearby city of Misrata were hit. He also reiterated the Libyan allegation that the rebels were linked to al-Qaida. There was no way to independently verify the claims.
The rebels said earlier that 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 a 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 as 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.
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.
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 the U.N. secretary-general.
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 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 who 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.