Gadafy vows to fight on as West unleashes airstrikes


European and US forces have destroyed a number of targets in Libya as they unleashed warplanes and missiles in the biggest Western military intervention in the Arab world since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The US military said today that 20 of the 22 intended targets were hit in the air and sea attacks and a UN-mandated  no-fly zone was effectively in place.

A defiant Muammar Gadafy said today the strikes amounted to terrorism and said he would defeat his enemies.

In an address broadcast on state television, the Libyan leader said his country was preparing for a long war and that all Libyans were carrying weapons to defend the country. "You are terrorists. You are fighting a people that hasn't invited you. Libya has become a hell in the face of enemies," he said. "This is an unjustified aggression. We will not leave our land and we will liberate it." 

The television broadcast carried his voice, without showing any images of him.

Libyan state television said 48 people had been killed and 150 others wounded. It also said there had been a fresh wave of strikes on Tripoli early today. There was no way to independently verify the claims.

French planes fired the first shots yesterday in a campaign to force Col Gadafy's troops to cease fire and end attacks on civilians. The warplanes destroyed tanks and armoured vehicles near the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

US and British warships and submarines then launched 110 Tomahawk missiles overnight as part of Operation Odyssey Dawn. The targets included air defences around the capital Tripoli and the western city of Misrata, which has been besieged by Col Gadafy's forces.

The strikes, launched from some 25 ships, including three US submarines, in the Mediterranean, followed a meeting in Paris of Western and Arab leaders backing the intervention. US officials said their forces and planes were working with Britain, France, Canada and Italy on the operation.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this morning the air strikes "took out" Libyan air defences and hit air fields while Western forces established air patrols over Benghazi. "Operations yesterday went very well," he said. "(Gadafy) hasn't had aircraft or helicopters flying the last couple days. So effectively that no-fly zone has been put in place."

He emphasised that the mission was focused on protecting civilians and aiding humanitarian efforts under a UN Security Council resolution, and not on ousting the regime from power. However, he conceded the endgame of the military action was "very uncertain" and acknowledged it could end in a stalemate.

A French defence ministry spokesman said French warplanes encountered no opposition in enforcing the no-fly zone today.

Britain’s defence ministry said its warplanes targeted Libya's air defence systems around Tripoli. The Al-Watyah air base, 170km southwest of Tripoli, was among the targets, a Libyan military official confirmed.

China and Russia, which abstained in the UN Security Council vote on Thursday that endorsed the intervention, expressed regret at the military action. China's foreign ministry said it hoped the conflict would not lead to a greater loss of civilian life, while Russia called for an end to attacks on what it said were non-military targets in Libya.

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". Arab backing for a no-fly zone provided crucial underpinning for the passage of the UN resolution that paved the way for Western action.

Explosions and heavy anti-aircraft fire rattled Tripoli in the early hours this morning. 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.

In the rebel-held Misrata, residents said Col Gadafy’s troops entered the centre of the city with tanks, and several people were killed by snipers.

Burned out military vehicles lined the main road into Benghazi today as the rebels advanced back towards the strategic town of Ajdabiyah they lost last week. About 14 tanks, 20 armoured personnel carriers, two trucks with multiple rocket launchers and dozens of pick-ups - all destroyed - were visible, indicating the strength of the force sent by Col Gadafy to retake the city.

At least 16 bodies lay in the desert next to the vehicles. "This is all France ... Today we came through and saw the road open," said rebel fighter Tahir Sassi, surveying the scene.

The intervention, after weeks of diplomatic wrangling, was welcomed in Benghazi with a mix of apprehension and relief. "We think this will end Gadafy's rule. Libyans will never forget France's stand with them. If it weren't for them, then Benghazi would have been overrun tonight," said Iyad Ali (37).

"We salute France, Britain, the United States and the Arab countries for standing with Libya. But we think Gadafy will take out his anger on civilians. So the West has to hit him hard," said civil servant Khalid al-Ghurfaly (38).

France and Britain have taken a lead role in pushing for international intervention in Libya. The US, after embarking on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, acknowledged yesterday it was in charge of operations but said it intended to switch to a "coalition command" in the coming days.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy said the allies had agreed to use "all necessary means, especially military" to enforce the Security Council resolution.

"Colonel Gadafy has made this happen," British prime minister David Cameron told reporters after the meeting. "We cannot allow the slaughter of civilians to continue."

Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper suggested that outside powers hoped their intervention would be enough to turn the tide against the regime and allow Libyans to force Col Gadafy out. "It is our belief that if Mr Gadafy loses the capacity to enforce his will through vastly superior armed forces, he simply will not be able to sustain his grip on the country."