French jets yesterday struck the opening blow for United Nations intervention, the Libyan rebellion – and a very uncertain future – when they fired the first shots authorised by Resolution 1973. Within hours, more than one hundred missiles were fired from US and British warships on targets around Tripoli. Libyan television said there were civilian casualties, a claim hard to verify. But, given Colonel Gaddafi's placing of human shields inside military and regime areas, it was not impossible.
In a speech late last night, Muammar Gaddafi said the Mediterranean and North Africa were now a battleground, and that the interests of countries in the region would be in danger from now on. He added: "We call on the peoples and citizens of the Arab and Islamic nations, Latin America, Asia and Africa to stand by the heroic Libyan people to confront this aggression." Later, Libyan state TV broke into its broadcasts to announce that "the crusader enemy" had bombed Bir al-Usta Milad Hospital, on the outskirts of Tripoli but there was no confirmation that a hospital had been hit.
The bombardment came at the end of a day when Gaddafi forces unsurprisingly belied their leader's ceasefire by killing at least 36 people in attacks on three rebel-held cities. The offensives prompted, in Benghazi at least, a renewed flight to the Egyptian border and, for much of the day, frustrated anger that the promised Western and Arab jets were not to be seen in the skies above their beleaguered cities. But, within an hour of talks ending in Paris between the leaders of the countries enforcing the UN resolution to protect the Libyan population, French Mirage and Rafale planes were making passes over Benghazi.
At 4.45pm London time they made their first strikes, destroying four tanks and an unknown number of government armoured vehicles south-west of Benghazi. By evening, some 20 French jets were enforcing a no-fly, no-drive area 60 miles by 100 miles around Benghazi. And then, as night deepened, some 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from British and US warships at air defence and other installations around Tripoli and other coastal sites.
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, in announcing that British forces were "in action over Libya", said: "We have all seen the appalling brutality that Gaddafi has meted out against his people. What we are doing is necessary, it is legal and it is right. We shouldn't stand aside as a dictator murders his own people." Today the build-up will continue. France's Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier will leave for Libya; a central command centre for the operation will be set up; and Royal Navy ships will help impose a blockade.
The relief in Benghazi that the UN was at last riding to the rescue was palpable. For much of yesterday, the joy the rebels had felt at news of Resolution 1973 had soured considerably as Gaddafi's forces mounted serious offensives. Crashing shells shook buildings, and the sounds of battle drew closer to the city centre. Against the Gaddafi armour was ranged a motley group of citizens about as militarily accomplished as the average neighbourhood-watch committee. At intervals along main streets, residents set up makeshift barricades with furniture, benches, road signs and, in one case, a barbecue. Each was manned by half a dozen rebels, only half of whom were armed.
Despair was nearly everywhere. A rebel military spokesman, Khalid al-Sayeh, said: "Where are the Western powers? They said they could strike within hours." And Hassan Marouf, 58, standing outside the door of his house in Benghazi, said: "We men are not afraid to die, but I have women and children inside and they are in tears. Help us." But, at that stage in the day, they were on their own. By midday, 27 bodies had been brought into the city's main hospital.
Elsewhere, Gaddafi forces bombarded the western town of Zintan, with around 20 tanks hitting residential areas. In Misrata, residents said government forces were shelling the town, and water supplies had been cut off for a third day. A doctor there said Gaddafi's snipers were on rooftops and his forces were searching homes for rebels.
In Tripoli, meanwhile, the alternative reality of the Gaddafi regime was being constructed. The Foreign Minister, Moussa Koussa, said the government was holding to the ceasefire and called for a team of foreign observers to verify it. A government spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, said the rebels – not Gaddafi's forces – had broken a ceasefire called by the government: "Our armed forces continue to retreat and hide, but the rebels keep shelling us."
The faintly whining tone of these statements was in contrast to the bombast of Gaddafi himself. At the Tripoli news conference in the capital Gaddafi's letter to those involved in enforcing the UN resolution was read: "Libya is not yours. Libya is for the Libyans. The Security Council resolution is invalid... You will regret it if you dare to intervene in our country."
As news came in the evening that up to 20 French war planes were criss-crossing Libya, the nature of some of Gaddafi's defences became apparent. Women and children were at the capital's airport as human shields. And a mixture of young men and older couples with their children earlier congregated within Gaddafi's large Bab al Azizia compound, an insurance policy of sorts, one presumes, against an aerial attempt to take out the leader. Mohammed Salah, 30, said he intended to sleep in the compound. "If they want to kill Gaddafi they will have to go through me," he said.
In Paris, Mr Cameron was among more than 20 world leaders, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Arab League Secretary-General, Amr Moussa, to attend a summit yesterday to agree the details of the intervention.
Their host, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, said the summit had agreed to use "all necessary means – in particular military means – to enforce the Security Council decisions". Other key figures at the Elysée Palace included the EU President Herman van Rompuy, Italy's PM Silvio Berlusconi, Spain's Jose Luis Zapatero and representatives of Arab states including Qatar, the UAE, Iraq, Jordan and Morocco. Germany, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Canada, Greece, the Netherlands and Poland were also represented. A communiqué issued after the talks demanded that Gaddafi and "those executing his orders" must immediately end acts of violence against civilians and withdraw from areas taken by force. Tomorrow, Mr Cameron will make a statement to the House of Commons and release to MPs legal advice given to the Cabinet on Friday, before a vote on British involvement in military action.
What happens if and when Gaddafi is toppled is far less clear. Some analysts predict partition, others warn of a stalemate lasting months. As so often in the past, applying superior military strength is not a problem. But the rebel leadership, which continues to be worryingly impromptu, may yet be.
World opinion: 'This has to stop. We have to make it stop'
"What is absolutely clear is that Gaddafi has broken his word, broken the ceasefire and continues to slaughter his own civilians. This has to stop. We have to make it stop."
David Cameron, Prime Minister
"In Libya, a peaceful civilian population,demanding nothing more than the right to choose its own destiny, is in mortal danger. It is our duty to respond to their anguish."
Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France
"The people of Libya must be protected. In the absence of an immediate end to theviolence against civilians, our coalition is prepared to act and act with urgency."
Barack Obama, US President
"We should not kid ourselves. Whenever you engage in military action – essentially acts of war – these are difficult situations. One cannot promise perfection, or that there will not be casualties on our side."
Stephen Harper, Canadian Prime Minister
"We accept our responsibilities to... work for the future of the Libyans to achieve sustainable democracy. Spain will contribute the necessary means to fulfil this task."
José Luis Zapatero, Spanish Prime Minister