SALLOUM, Egypt — The U.S. and its allies attacked Libya Saturday, launching a wave of cruise missiles to knock out air defense sites and clearing the way for a sustained campaign against Moammar Gadhafi's forces.
A combined 112 cruise missiles launched from U.S. and British warships pounded more than 20 targets in Libya, mostly along the Mediterranean coast and near the capital of Tripoli. The missiles targeted Libyan air defense sites to clear the way for unfettered allied flights to come.
President Barack Obama, clearly not eager to launch the third U.S. military attacks in a Muslim nation after Afghanistan and Iraq, stressed that the U.S. action will be limited.
"Today, I authorized the Armed Forces of the United States to begin a limited military action in Libya in support of an international effort to protect Libyan civilians. That action has now begun," Obama said.
Even before the allied missile attack, French warplanes streaked into the skies of Libya to threaten Gadhafi's forces, which opened the day with an assault on anti-Gadhafi forces in Benghazi. One French plane struck a Gadhafi tank, French authorities reported.
"It's a grave decision we've had to take," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in Paris after a closed door meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Prime Minister David Cameron. "Along with our Arab, European and North American partners, France has decided to play its part before history."
Obama stressed anew that he will not send any U.S. ground forces into Libya, and that he came reluctantly to even a limited air-only role.
"This is not an outcome that the United States or any of our partners sought," he said. "I am deeply aware of the risks of any military action, no matter what limits we place on it. I want the American people to know that the use of force is not our first choice and it's not a choice that I make lightly.
"But we cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy, and his forces step up their assaults on cities like Benghazi and Misrata, where innocent men and women face brutality and death at the hands of their own government."
Gadhafi showed no sign of bowing to the international pressure. He released an open letter to Obama, addressing him in strikingly personal terms and suggesting he is fighting Al Qaida terrorists on his own soil, not his countrymen, and that he's doing just as Obama would do.
"I have said to you before that even if Libya and the United States enter into war, God forbid, you will always remain my son and I have all the love for you as a son, and I do not want your image to change with me," he wrote before the allied missiles hit.
"Al Qaida is an armed organization, passing through Algeria, Mauritania and Mali. What would you do if you found them controlling American cities with the power of weapons? What would you do, so I can follow your example?"
Obama said nothing about forcing Gadhafi from power. A week ago, he said it was in the U.S. interest to drive him out.
Clinton left open the possibility that Gadhafi could remain in power, as she and others stressed the demand that he stop attacking his people and allow humanitarian relief to reach them, not that he step down. "Those are all questions that standing here are difficult to answer," Clinton said in Paris.
She also said the immediate goal of the U.N. resolution and the military strikes was to protect Libyan civilians, not to oust Gadhafi.
U.S. Vice Adm. William Gortney, the director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff, said the cruise missiles were aimed at destroying the command and control facilities, radar and surface-to-air missiles that Gadhafi could use to threaten allied warplanes.
The strikes were just the first of a multistage operation, he said, declining to elaborate.
He also said the U.S. aircraft would not fly over Libya to enforce the no-fly-zone or stop Libyan ground forces from attacking other Libyans. U.S. tankers could refuel allied planes en route to Libya.
Defying international warnings, Gadhafi's forces fought their way early Saturday into the opposition stronghold of Benghazi with a barrage of air strikes and mortar fire.
The attack on Benghazi, where the Libyan uprising began, flouted the U.N.-approved no-fly zone and Gadhafi's own declaration of a ceasefire. The move also forced opposition leaders to admit for the first time that the rebels had lost nearly all their hard-won eastern territory. By mid-afternoon, fighting still raged, and there were conflicting accounts as to which side was winning in Benghazi, a city of 1 million.
In another setback for the opposition, a plane shot down in Benghazi turned out to be a rebel aircraft brought down by friendly fire, said Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of the National Libyan Council, the interim rebel authority. The crash sent a huge plume of dark smoke into the air and some residents initially cheered, believing opposition forces had shot down one of Gadhafi's planes.
Hundreds of residents fled Benghazi as the government forces attacked from the south and west, with battles raging along the highway that connects Benghazi to the city of Ajdabiya. Witnesses said not all the attacking forces came from outside the city — some were believed to have been already lying low inside the city as they awaited orders to mobilize.
Families from Benghazi bundled up their possession and made a beeline for the Egyptian border, where many cars still sported decals of the Libyan rebel flag. Journalists and aid workers also streamed out of the city after waking up to artillery fire so heavy that it shook buildings.
At the border, where dejected families pondered their next move, one woman sneered, "Look what Moammar is doing to us." Libyan officials have appeared on TV to deny that any such offensive against Benghazi had occurred. By late afternoon, however, there were dozens of witness accounts, photos and videos posted online to refute the government's stance.
(Youssef reported from Egypt, Thomma from Washington. Shashank Bengali contributed to this article from Washington.)
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