Colin Freeman and Sean Rayment – Telegraph.co.uk March 20, 2011
David Cameron ordered British forces into action against Libya in “Operation Ellamy”, saying the bombardment was “necessary, legal and right”.
Explosions were reported at an airport east of Tripoli as a British Trafalgar Class submarine and US Navy ships and submarines stationed off Libya fired 110 Tomahawk missiles at 20 targets in what one source described as a “night of carnage”.
The missiles targeted Libyan command and control centres, radar installations and surface-to-air missile sites. Libyan officials said the attacks were “barbaric” and causing civilian casualties.
British Tornado GR4 jets from RAF Marham were poised to attack more sites with Storm Shadow missiles, which can be fired from 200 miles from their target.
The Prime Minister held an emergency meeting with senior ministers and military officers. After a Cobra meeting he said British forces were in action over Libya.
“What we are doing is necessary, it is legal and it is right,” he said in a statement outside Downing Street.
“I believe we should not stand aside while this dictator murders his own people.
“Tonight our thoughts should be with those in our Armed Services who are putting their lives at risk to save the lives of others. They are the bravest of the brave.”
French combat jets were the first to attack on Saturday as they destroyed four tanks at 4.45pm — hours after 19 world leaders gathered in Paris to agree multinational action.
The Libyan dictator tried to wrong-foot the international community by declaring a ceasefire, while his forces kept up an onslaught on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
In Paris Mr Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, led a summit that agreed to “all necessary action” in a move backed by the United States, a series of European countries and, crucially, Arab nations. Col Gaddafi was told to quit as:
• The first confirmed targets were an airport near Tajoura, on the outskirts of Tripoli, and an airbase close to rebel-held Misurata
• Up to 16 RAF Tornado ground attack planes were prepared to scramble from RAF Marham to destroy Libya’s air defence system while eight Typhoons are set to patrol over Libya
• After returning from Paris, Mr Cameron held a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee with senior ministers and the Chief of the Defence Staff
• US forces — a total of 25 vessels – launched Tomahawk missiles in the Mediterranean
• Planes from Canada, Denmark and Spain arrived at bases near Libya and more air power was expected
• Russia broke international consensus to say it “regretted” action against Col Gaddafi
• The Libyan dictator’s forces shelled rebel positions, leading to civilians fleeing from Benghazi
• A Libyan jet whose pilot defected to the rebels crashed in Benghazi after being shot down by Col Gaddafi’s troops.
British sources and Pentagon officials said Nato would undertake a “battle damage assessment” of Libya’s military during daylight hours and would decide whether to continue with further attacks.
Sources at the Elysée Palace said Britain, France and the United States had assumed the “leadership” of the coalition in early talks between the Prime Minister, Mr Sarkozy and Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State. The “extremely purposeful conclusion” of the early talks was endorsed by the full meeting, where speakers included Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations secretary general.
Sources said Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, “supported” action against Libya despite abstaining in last week’s UN Security Council vote. The summit was also attended by Amr Moussa, the Arab League secretary general, and representatives of Arab states including Qatar, the UAE, Iraq, Jordan and Morocco.
Qatar and the UAE are expected to join the military effort. Canadian F-18 combat jets landed at Prestwick Airport in Ayrshire yesterday to refuel before heading to northern Sicily while six Danish F-16 jets arrived at the island ready for operations later today.
Over the next few days more Nato ships will converge on Libya with the aim of enforcing a naval blockade. Royal Navy frigate HMS Westminster is already off the Libyan coast while HMS Cumberland, also a frigate, is in the Mediterranean. Britain’s contribution will be controlled by Joint Force Air Component, a command and control structure already deployed to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus.
Elements of the US Navy began to concentrate their forces in the region. The USS Enterprise carrier strike group was ready for action in the Red Sea. Also in the region was the USS Kearsarge Expeditionary Strike Group.
President Barack Obama said the international community was resolved to protect the people of Libya. “In the absence of an immediate end to the violence against civilians, our coalition is prepared to act and act with urgency,” he said.
In a straw poll of Sunday Telegraph readers by eDigital, an independent market research company, 57 per cent said they supported the Government’s decision to take part in international action against Col Gaddafi’s forces, while 27 per cent opposed it.
Asked whether British ground forces should be used if the regime’s attacks on civilians continued, 48 per cent said “yes” while 47 per cent said “no”. About two thirds said the Coalition should reconsider its defence cuts in light of the situation.
Earlier, Col Gaddafi’s forces attacked the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, prompting thousands of civilians to flee east towards the Egyptian border.
Artillery bombardment of the city began early on Saturday, with reports that ground troops were approaching from the coast and the south.
As explosions shook the city, a large plume of black smoke rose from the edge of Benghazi. A doctor said 27 bodies had reached hospitals by midday.
Residents set up makeshift barricades with furniture, benches and road signs along main streets, with each barricade manned by rebels.
During the day, rebels retreated but later claimed they had regained ground, seizing four tanks from Gaddafi forces.
Mr Sarkozy said Col Gaddafi’s actions would not be tolerated. At the summit talks he said participants agreed “to use all necessary means to enforce the Security Council decisions”.
Mr Sarkozy said Col Gaddafi had brushed off calls for an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of his troops.
“His forces have stepped up their deadly offensive,” he said. “Arab peoples have chosen to free themselves from enslavement.”
Mrs Clinton said the US would use its military capabilities to help its European and Canadian allies and Arab partners stop Col Gaddafi from attacking Libyan people.
Jim Murphy, the shadow defence secretary, said: “This is a moment of truth for the international community to end the slaughter of innocents in Libya. The Government is right to take strong and urgent action. Gaddafi has no one to blame but himself. Britain should stand in solidarity with the Libyan people.”