TRIPOLI - Western forces pounded Libya’s air defences and patrolled its skies on Sunday, but their day-old intervention hit a serious diplomatic setback as the Arab League chief condemned the "bombardment of civilians."
As European and U.S. forces unleashed warplanes and cruise missiles against Moammar Gadhafi’s air defences and armour, the Libyan leader said the air strikes amounted to terrorism and vowed to fight to the death.
While his eastern forces fled from the outskirts of Benghazi in the face of the allied air attacks, Gadhafi sent tanks into Misrata, the last rebel city in western Libya. Among the densely packed houses they were less vulnerable to attack from the air without the risk of killing innocent civilians.
Sixty-four people were killed in the Western bombardment overnight, a Libyan government health official said, but it was impossible to verify the report as government minders refused to take reporters in Tripoli to the sites of the bombings.
Arab League chief Amr Moussa called for an emergency meeting of the group of 22 states to discuss Libya. He requested a report into the bombardment which he said had "led to the deaths and injuries of many Libyan civilians."
"What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians," Egypt’s official state news agency quoted Moussa as saying.
Arab backing for a no-fly zone provided crucial underpinning for the passage of the U.N. Security Council resolution last week that paved the way for Western action to stop Gadhafi killing civilians as he fights an uprising against his rule.
The intervention is the biggest against an Arab country since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Withdrawal of Arab support would make it much harder to pursue what some defence analysts say could in any case be a difficult, open-ended campaign with an uncertain outcome.
A senior U.S. official rebuffed Moussa’s comments.
"The resolution endorsed by Arabs and UNSC (the United Nations Security Council) included ’all necessary measures’ to protect civilians, which we made very clear includes, but goes beyond, a no-fly zone," the official told Reuters during a visit by President Barack Obama to Rio de Janeiro.
The U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said the no-fly zone was effectively in place. But he told CBS the endgame of military action was "very uncertain" and acknowledged it could end in a stalemate with Gadhafi.
Mullen said he had seen no reports of civilian casualties from the Western strikes. But Russia said there had been such casualties and called on Britain, France and the United States to halt the "non-selective use of force."
Western intervention, after weeks of diplomatic wrangling, was welcomed with a mix of apprehension and relief in Benghazi where the main hospital was filled with men, women and children wounded in Saturday’s assault on the city by Gadhafi’s forces.
"We salute France, Britain, the United States and the Arab countries for standing with Libya. But we think Gadhafi will take out his anger on civilians. So the West has to hit him hard," said civil servant Khalid al-Ghurfaly, 38.
Outside the eastern city, the advance by Gadhafi’s troops was stopped in its tracks with smouldering, shattered tanks and troop carriers littering the main road. The charred bodies of at least 14 government soldiers lay scattered in the desert.
"Gadhafi is like a chicken and the coalition is plucking his feathers so he can’t fly. The revolutionaries will slit his neck," said Fathi Bin Saud, a 52-year-old rebel carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, surveying the devastation.
Insurgents, fighting a month-old uprising to end Gadhafi’s 41 years in power, advanced south from Benghazi towards the strategic junction at Ajdabiyah which they lost last week.
But in Misrata, east of Tripoli, residents said government tanks and snipers had entered the centre of the city after a base outside it had been hit by Western air strikes. "Two people were killed so far today by snipers. They (snipers) are still on the rooftops. They are backed with four tanks, which have been patrolling the town. It’s getting very difficult for people to come out," one Misrata resident, called Sami, told Reuters by telephone.
"There are also boats encircling the port and preventing aid from reaching the town."
Abdelbasset, a spokesman for the rebels in Misrata, told Reuters: "There is fighting between the rebels and Gadhafi’s forces. Their tanks are in the centre of Misrata ... There are so many casualties we cannot count them."
QATAR SENDING PLANES
French planes fired the first shots of the intervention on Saturday, destroying tanks and armoured vehicles near Benghazi. The eastern city is the cradle of the anti-Gadhafi revolt that started last month, inspired by Arab uprisings that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.
France sent an aircraft carrier towards Libya and its planes were over the country again on Sunday, defence officials said. Britain said its planes had targeted Libya’s air defences mainly around the capital Tripoli.
U.S. and British warships and submarines launched 110 Tomahawk missiles overnight against air defences around the capital Tripoli and Misrata, U.S. military officials said.
They said U.S. forces and planes were working with Britain, France, Canada and Italy in operation "Odyssey Dawn." Four Danish fighter planes took off from a base in Italy, apparently to join the mission over Libya.
Aircraft from other countries, including Qatar, were also moving near Libya to participate in the operation, Mullen said.
Explosions and heavy anti-aircraft fire rattled Tripoli in the early hours of Sunday. Defiant cries of "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest) echoed around the city centre.
Libyan state television showed footage from an unidentified hospital of what it called victims of the "colonial enemy." Ten bodies were wrapped up in white and blue bed sheets, and several people were wounded, one of them badly, the television said.
The mood in Tripoli turned markedly anti-Western, and crowds shouted defiant slogans and shot in the air.