RNW, 19 March 2011, by Martijn van Tol
Around 20 French war planes have begun enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya authorised by the United Nations to stop Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces killing civilians, the French defence ministry says. French jets have also attacked a number of ground targets.
The news comes just hours after Western and Arab leaders met in the French capital Paris to discuss how to impose the no-fly zone agreed by the United Nations Security Council on Friday. On Friday, Libya announced a cease-fire in response to the UN resolution.
On Saturday morning, however, a message by Colonel Gaddafi said the UN was not authorized to intervene in Libya's internal affairs and forces loyal to the Libyan leader launched a massive assault on the main rebel stronghold of Benghazi in the east of the country. Scores of frightened civilians are fleeing the besieged city towards the Egyptian border.
Earlier in the day, a Libyan rebel fighter jet was downed over the city of Benghazi, possibly by rebel forces themselves.
Various news media report that the city of Benghazi came under fire early this morning. Radio Netherlands Worldwide reporter Hans Jaap Melissen is in the city, he says the city awoke to “heavy shelling, which got closer and closer”:
"I woke up early in the morning to the noise of rebel gunfire. When I went onto the balcony, I heard heavy shelling from the direction from which Gaddafi’s troops were believed to be advancing. At the same time I heard explosions closer-by here in the city itself, but I am not sure exactly what that was. If I look towards the front I can see thick plumes of black smoke.”
Roads near the airport and a suburb are believed to have been bombed. There are also reports of fighting between rebels and Nigerian mercenaries loyal to Gaddafi. Later in the morning a fighter jet flew over Benghazi, in spite of a no-fly zone imposed by the United Nations Security Council on Thursday night. RNW's Hans Jaap Melissen gave this eye-witness account.
”Listen, a fight jet is flying over right now. I can see it turning round, I cannot see whether it is being flown by a Libyan pilot. He is looping the loop, I can hear a bomb falling. The plane is flying right above the hotel now. People on the streets are looking up at the sky. The jet is crashing! I can see plumes of smoke rising. It was hit by something, you can hear people honking their horns. They are shouting Allahu Akbar (God is great). The jet crashed in the southwest of the city, black smoke is rising from the spot where it went down.”
Initial reports indicate the Libyan leader Gaddafi has violated UN resolution 1973, which was passed on Thursday night. However, our reporter says he was at the hospital mortuary when the body of the jet pilot was brought in. He was told that the pilot was one of the Libyan rebels. Later reports confirm the plane belonged to the rebels and was shot down by Colonel Gaddafi’s forces. (Sources: twitter, BBC, The Guardian).
Mussa Ibrahim, spokesperson for the Libyan regime, has denied there were attacks on Benghazi on Saturday morning. “No attacks have been carried out on Benghazi, none at all,” he told press agency Reuters. But a little later, Gaddafi personally announced that he did not recognise the UN resolution for a no-fly zone over Libya and the protection the Libyan people. He also warned against the consequences of international intervention. But he did not say what these consequences would be.
RNW reporter Melissen says the situation is extremely tense:
”It’s extremely worrying, the gunfire is getting closer and closer and there are reports that they have already entered the city. At the hotel, we are being told we should leave, but I am much more concerned for the members of the opposition who are still here. They thought they would be protected by the West and now appear to have been abandoned. I think Gaddafi’s troops could arrive at any minute. Right now, the traffic is still being directed by a rebel, but soon it could be one of Gaddafi’s soldiers.”
Hundreds of cars crammed full of people are reported to be fleeing eastward to get away from the fighting.
Meanwhile 26 people are reported dead and 40 injured at Benghazi hospital, where Hans Jaap Melissen is at the moment:
“Up to now, I have never felt threatened by the rebels. As you see the bodies arrive, people look bitter. You have to imagine, they had been celebrating only moments ago".
Once French Mirages and British Typhoons fly to the city, "it will be difficult for them to intervene in the suburbs. But they can bomb Gaddafi’s military positions and tanks," Melissen added.
The chairperson of the National Council of Libyan Rebels has called on the international community to intervene as soon as possible. “All Benghazi’s neighbourhoods are coming under artillery fire and shelling. If the world does not enforce the UN Security Council resolution, a catastrophe will take place in the city today.”
Meanwhile world leaders, including representatives from the Morocco, Qatar, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, the United Kingdom and France, are meeting in Paris to discuss military intervention in Libya. Earlier, US President Barack Obama warned Gaddafi to stop the attacks on the rebels or there would be military reprisals.
Dutch PM Mark Rutte, also attending the meeting, said he would like to see action soon, and offered military help.