AL-MARJ, Libya: French warplanes overflew Benghazi on Saturday to prevent air strikes on the rebel bastion and were ready to attack Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s tanks, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said.
As thousands fled the city in eastern Libya, he told a summit of world leaders in Paris gathered to discuss military measures threatened in a UN Security Council resolution that the French fighters were poised to attack.
But Sarkozy said Gaddafi could still avoid the worst for his regime if he complied with the UN resolution by halting the fighting to allow the diplomatic door to reopen.
But Gaddafi earlier gave a defiant response to the threats, telling Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron, main sponsors of Friday’s UN resolution, that they would regret interfering in his country’s affairs.
And he told US President Barack Obama that the Libyan people were “prepared to die for me – men, women and children,” a government spokesman said, reading out letters from Gaddafi to the three world leaders.
A French military source said French Rafale fighter jets on Saturday were overflying “all Libyan territory” on reconnaissance missions and had so far encountered no problems.
“In agreement with our partners, our air force will oppose any attack by Colonel Gaddafi’s planes on the people of Benghazi. Our planes are already preventing air strikes on the city,” Sarkozy said.
“Already other planes, French, are ready to intervene against tanks that might threaten unarmed civilians.”
Libya’s ex-interior minister Abdel Fatah Yunes, who has defected to the rebel camp, thanked France whose warplanes he said were carrying out reconnaissance flights over Libya.
“Welcome to them and thanks, although I had wished there were Arab warplanes,” he told Al-Arabiya television.
Earlier, a huge plume of smoke rose over Benghazi, Libya’s second city, as thousands of people fled eastward after a series of air strikes and sustained shelling, said an AFP reporter in the metropolis of one million people.
Correspondents redeployed to Al-Marj, 100 kilometres from Benghazi, reported that tanks of Gaddafi’s military forces had entered the Mediterranean city by mid-morning.
A warplane crashed in flames in a residential area of Benghazi, triggering celebratory gunfire from the rebels, but an insurgent commander later admitted it was one of theirs and had been shot down by Gaddafi’s forces.
The Libyan government has since Friday insisted it was observing a self-declared ceasefire, shortly after the Security Council voted to authorise the use of force against Gaddafi’s troops to spare civilians.
The regime said its armed forces were under attack west of Benghazi, including by rebel aircraft, and had responded in self-defence.
But the rebels, who have been trying to overthrow the Libyan leader for more than a month, said government troops had continued to bombard cities, violating the ceasefire continuously.
“Left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Gaddafi would commit atrocities against his people,” US President Barack Obama said on Friday. “Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue.”
Libyan Foreign Minister Mussa Kussa said Tripoli had met all its obligations under the UN resolution and asked UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to send observers to monitor the ceasefire.