US and European military forces have bombarded Libya with cruise missiles and air attacks as part of a broad international effort to enforce a UN-mandated no-fly zone more than a month after the outbreak of an uprising against longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi.
French jets fired the first shots on Saturday in Operation Odyssey Dawn, the biggest international military intervention in the Arab world since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, destroying tanks and armoured vehicles in eastern Libya.
Hours later, US and British warships and submarines launched more than 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles at more than 20 coastal targets to clear the way for air patrols to ground Libya's air force.
An unnamed US national security official said the air defences of Libya have been "severely crippled" by the barrage of missile strikes.
"Gaddafi's air defence systems have been severely disabled. It's too soon to predict what he and his ground forces may do in response to today's strikes," the military source said, on condition of anonymity.
Major-General John Lorimer, a British military spokesman, said British fighter jets also had been used to bombard the north African nation.
Anti-aircraft guns could be heard firing overnight in Tripoli. Libyan state television later said civilian areas of the capital and fuel-storage tanks that supplied Misurata had been hit.
It also claimed that 48 people had been killed and 150 others wounded in the attacks, but Al Jazeera could not independently verify that report.
In Tripoli, residents said they had heard an explosion near the eastern Tajoura district, while in Misurata they said strikes had targeted a regime airbase.
Several thousand people gathered at the Bab al-Azizia palace, a compound in the capital which was bombed by US warplanes in 1986.
In response, Gaddafi vowed to arm civilians to defend the country from what he called "colonial, Crusader" aggression by Western forces.
"It is now necessary to open the stores and arm all the masses with all types of weapons to defend the independence, unity and honour of Libya," Gaddafi said in an audio message broadcast on state television hours after the strikes began.
Al Jazeera's Jacky Rowland reports on the launch of the international military operation in Libya
He called the Mediterranean and north Africa a "battleground" and said Libya would exercise its right to self defence under article 51 of the United Nations charter.
"The interests of countries face danger from now on in the Mediterranean because of this aggressive and mad behaviour," he said.
"Unfortunately, due to this [action], marine and air targets, whether military or civilian, will be exposed to real danger in the Mediterranean, since the area of the Mediterranean and North Africa has become a battleground because of this blatant military aggression."
He said the UN Security Council and the international community were responsible for "stopping this unjust flagrant aggression against a sovereign country immediately".
He also called on Arab, Islamic, African, Latin American and Asian countries to "stand by the heroic Libyan people to confront this aggression, which will only increase the Libyan people's strength, firmness and unity".
Shortly after Gaddafi's speech, a message on state television said Libya had decided to end its efforts to stop illegal immigration to Europe, citing a security source.
'Not first choice'
Barack Obama, the US president, said it had not been his first choice to authorise US participation in military strikes against the Gaddafi regime.
"This is not an outcome the US or any of our partners sought," Obama said from Brazil, where he has just begun a five-day visit through Latin America.
"(But) we cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy."
|Thousands of Gaddafi supporters form a human shield outside the heavily-fortified al-Aziziya camp [Reuters]
He said US troops were acting in support of allies, who would lead the enforcement of a no-fly zone to stop Gaddafi's attacks on rebels.
"As I said yesterday, we will not, I repeat, we will not deploy any US troops on the ground," Obama said.
Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, director of the US military's Joint Staff, said the missile raids were only the first phase.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy said after a meeting of world leaders in Paris that participants agreed to use "all necessary means, especially military" to enforce the Security Council's resolution.
"Colonel Gaddafi has made this happen," David Cameron, the UK prime minister, said after the meeting.
"We cannot allow the slaughter of civilians to continue."
Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, suggested that outside powers hoped their intervention would be enough to turn the tide against Gaddafi and allow Libyans to force him out.
"It is our belief that if Mr. Gaddafi 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."