How French jets saved Libya's rebels at the last minute
International airstrikes led first by France devastated an armored column loyal to Muammar Qaddafi overnight – saving the rebellion with little time to spare.
Last Thursday night, with Muammar Qaddafi’s forces drawing ever closer to the Libyan rebel capital of Benghazi, the United Nations Security Council promised action to protect Libyan civilians, touching off street parties across the country’s liberated east.Skip to next paragraph
Then, before dawn on Saturday, he struck the heart of the rebel campaign in Benghazi, sending rockets, tank fire, and infantry into civilian neighborhoods. Dozens of civilians and rebel fighters died in the assault.
Benghazi and the rebellion were hanging by a thread. If Libya's second-largest city fell back in the hands of Qaddafi loyalists, the resolve of Libya’s rebellion would probably fall with it.
"So, we’re being abandoned after all,” said one young rebel as terrified residents poured out of a checkpoint on the eastern outskirts of town.
But then came the roar of French jets, followed by 112 Tomahawk missiles fired by US and British forces crippling Qaddafi's defenses and air capabilities – and staving off the likely execution for dozens of rebel leaders.
Allies strike in the nick of time
Beginning Saturday afternoon and extending beyond this Sunday morning, dozens of international sorties flew over Libya and targeted the army Qaddafi sent to retake Benghazi.
Sunday, at least a dozen of his tanks, armored personnel carriers, and the countless civilian cars he used to transport troops were smoldering hulks on the the road from Benghazi to Ajdabiya, and the pendulum here had once again swung back – for what felt like the fourth time in a week – from despair to joy.
At the western outskirts of Benghazi today, as many residents who had fled returned home, a celebrating group of young men had set a dog astride a donkey.“That’s Qaddafi,” says a grinning young man, pointing at the larger animal, “and that’s his owner,” he says, pointing at the dog.
On the road toward Adjabiya, Benghazi residents came to see the wreckage, celebrate, and pose children in front of the remains of Qaddafi's tanks for the family scrapbook.
The international community has now taken a decisive role in Libya’s civil war, despite the statements of US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and other Western officials that this is only about civilian protection, not regime change.
In Benghazi today, the leaders of the rebel’s ragtag army were drawing up plans for how to move west, and civilian leaders were once again confidently predicting Qaddafi’s demise.
Mustafa Gheriani, the spokesman for the rebels transitional government in Benghazi, says their forces were sweeping up scattered bands of Qaddafi’s troops in the city throughout the day.
To be sure, there remain military challenges that international airpower will not easily be able to address. There were multiple accounts of dead Qaddafi fighters found wearing civilian clothing under their fatigues – and in some neighborhoods, residents reported finding discarded military uniforms.
That implies that some Qaddafi loyalists have secreted themselves within Benghazi and blending with the local population. It would not be hard to pick up a rifle and pose as a volunteer with the rebel militia, which still has little and command and control from officers, and pass intelligence back to Tripoli.