International air and missile strikes in Libya appear to have saved the rebel stronghold of Benghazi for now, but their intensity has brought condemnation from the Arab bloc whose support is deemed crucial for the military action’s credibility.
The strikes by western nations also drew vitriolic words from Libya’s military strongman Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, who labelled his enemies “the party of Satan”.
The Arab League yesterday sharply condemned the attack. Support from the League, which more than a week ago urged the international community to implement a no-fly zone over Libya to stop Col Qaddafi’s planes from striking the population, is key for western countries participating in the operation.
“What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians, not the bombardment of more civilians,” said the League secretary general, Amr Moussa. Mr Moussa said he would convene an emergency meeting of the Arab League to discuss Libya.
China and Russia have also condemned the attacks on Libya.
The air and missile strikes by France, the US and Britain started on Saturday, but have had mixed results. While Benghazi was relieved and opposition fighters struck out again towards other towns in eastern Libya, the rebels said that they were on the point of losing their only remaining foothold in the west of the country, the town of Misrata.
They said that government tanks had reached the centre of the town. “There are so many casualties, we cannot count them,” a rebel spokesman in Misrata told Reuters.
The first attacks were aimed at stopping the government’s assault on Benghazi that was under way at the time. Strikes aimed at Col Qaddafi’s air defences and airfields followed.
The countries acted after a UN Security Council resolution last week that authorised the use of force to protect Libya’s population.
The highest American military official said yesterday that a no-fly zone that stops Libyan government aircraft from attacking rebel positions was “effectively in place”. Admiral Mike Mullen, who heads the joint chiefs of staff of the US military, told CNN that Col Qaddafi “has not flown his planes for the last two days”.
He also said that the strikes had “put a halt, at least temporarily” to the government assault on Benghazi.
Despite the criticism from the Arab League, some Arab countries were poised yesterday to start participating in the operation, notably Qatar. “I am very confident that there will be military capabilities from some Arab countries and they’re moving into theatre now,” Adml Mullen said.
The Qatari prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al Thani, told the Al Jazeera satellite TV channel yesterday that his country is taking part in the operation.
“Qatar is participating in the military action because it is necessary for Arab states to take part,” he said.
Sheikh Hamad emphasised that the action was not aimed at the Libyan people, or against Col Qaddafi personally, but was meant to “stop the bloodbath”. Hundreds of people have died in Libya since large parts of the country rose up against Col Qaddafi’s 42-year rule last month.
The Libyan leader struck a defiant tone in a radio speech after the international military action started, and said that he and his nation were preparing for a “long war”. Col Qaddafi attempted to depict the action as a “crusader war against the Muslim people, especially against the Libyan people”.
He called his opponents “the party of Satan” and vowed attacks against military and civilian targets in and around the Mediterranean.
The government in Tripoli also yesterday started handing out weapons to “more than a million men and women”, the official news agency Jana reported, quoting a ministry of defence official.
The Libyan capital was rocked by explosions from the coalition attacks on Saturday night and yesterday morning.
Libya’s government said that the initial air and missile strikes claimed the lives of 64 people, including dozens of civilians. The countries carrying out the initial strikes have said that these were carefully aimed at military objectives, including air defence installations and airfields.
US and British warships sent a barrage of 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles flying into Libya late on Saturday as part of what the coalition has dubbed “Operation Odyssey Dawn”. American stealth bombers and other warplanes then carried out the bulk of the strikes against Libya’s air defences and military airfields.
But American military spokesmen have emphasised that the US hopes to scale down its role, when Col Qaddafi’s air defences and air force have been neutralised, to let European and Arab countries take the lead.
The first strikes on Saturday were carried out by aircraft from France, the country that had pushed hardest for military intervention in Libya.
The attacks were aimed against government forces near Benghazi.
Col Qaddafi’s men had been using tanks and heavy artillery against the city since Friday, killing at least 90 people, according to hospital and opposition sources.