With concerted air strikes against Col Qaddafi's forces apparently imminent, the defence ministry in Paris said an aircraft had fired on Libyan military vehicles, destroying several.
French fighters take on Qaddafi loyalists
French fighters went into action against Libyan forces last night, only hours after world powers met in Paris to co-ordinate UN-sanctioned military action to end Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's bloody campaign against the rebels.
With concerted air strikes against Col Qaddafi's forces apparently imminent, the defence ministry in Paris said an aircraft had fired on Libyan military vehicles, destroying several.Speaking after the Elysée Palace summit attended by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE foreign minister, and other Arab, European and American leaders, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy said: "Our air force will oppose any aggression by Col Qaddafi against the population of Benghazi.
"As of now, our aircraft are preventing planes from attacking the town. As of now, other French aircraft are ready to intervene against tanks, armoured vehicles threatening unarmed civilians."
Until confirmation that a vehicle had been fired upon, the initial missions were thought to have been limited to jamming the radar systems of Libyan aircraft.Agence France-Presse quoted military sources as saying the operation involved Rafale jets deployed from their base at Saint-Dizier in eastern France.
French Mirage fighters were also reported to have taken part, with French aircraft engaged over "all Libyan territory" on reconnaissance missions, according to officials. They were said to have encountered no resistance in the early stages of their operation.
British, Canadian and Danish planes are now preparing to follow the French air force into Libyan skies. More direct action - including possible strikes against armoured vehicles - was thought to be inevitable within hours of the Paris meeting reaching unanimous agreement that urgent intervention was crucial.
The British prime minister, David Cameron, said it was clear Col Qaddafi had broken his own promise to observe a ceasefire in response to UN Security Council resolution 1973, passed in Friday's early hours.
"What is absolutely clear is that Qaddafi has broken his word and continues to slaughter his own civilians," he said. "This has to stop, we have to make him stop and make him face the consequences. I think action must take place urgently."
Mr Cameron described the summit as a "successful coming together of countries, including Arab countries, who want to enforce the will of the UN".
The western and Arab leaders had gathered in the French capital to finalise details for the implementation of the Security Council resolution permitting "all necessary measures" to protect Libya's civilian population.
They met against a background of reports of a ferocious battle by Libyan forces to regain control of Benghazi from rebels. Libya denied it had mounted any offensive action.
But Col Qaddafi's ground forces were reported to be bombarding insurgents, prompting civilians to flee Benghazi in their thousands.
There was also dramatic footage of a military aircraft plummeting to the ground in flames but the rebels later confirmed that the plane was theirs.
Even allowing for the confusion caused by conflicting accounts of what was happening, however, there was nothing to suggest that Col Qaddafi's promised ceasefire had materialised.
That appeared to place Libya in direct defiance of the UN resolution, the terms of which had been described by the US president Barack Obama as non-negotiable.
Indeed, yesterday's messages from the Qaddafi regime could hardly have been more at odds with the previous day's announcement, by the foreign minister Moussa Koussa, that Libya would call an immediate ceasefire, abide by the resolution and end military operations against rebel forces.
"I have all the Libyan people with me and I'm prepared to die," Col Qaddafi said in an open letter to Mr Obama read to reporters in Tripoli by a spokesman for his regime. "And they are prepared to die for me. Men, women and even children."
The spokesman also read a letter addressed to France, Britain and the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, claiming that the UN resolution was invalid because it amounted to interference in a country's internal affairs.
"Libya is not yours, Libya is for all Libyans," the letter declared. "You will regret it if you take a step toward intervening in our internal affairs."
The Paris summit was preceded by talks involving Mr Sarkozy, Mr Cameron and the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, a clear indication that their three countries would spearhead the enforcement of the UN resolution. Mrs Clinton said that if the world failed to act now, there was a danger of Col Qaddafi committing "unspeakable atrocities" against his own people.
Still, Mrs Clinton refused to be drawn on what military muscle the US would commit to the operation.
Mrs Clinton praised the contribution of the Arab League towards changing the diplomatic landscape with its clear statements on the Libyan crisis, and Arab nations. The Arab world was represented at the Elysée Palace summit by Amr Mousa, secretary general of the Arab League, and ministers from Morocco, Jordan and Iraq.