French jets hit Qaddafi forces as civilians flee Libya's rebel capital, Benghazi

Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi attacked Benghazi this morning, causing an exodus from the city. France responded by launching airstrikes against Qaddafi's ground forces.

Anthony Jeuland/AP
French fighter jets take off from Dijon, France, bound for Libya to enforce the UN no-flight zone over that country.

An assault by forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi in the heart of Benghazi, the capital of the rebellion against the Libyan strongman’s 41-year reign, led to a panicked flight of thousands of residents and tougher action from the international community today.

Mr. Qaddafi’s regime had promised a cease-fire repeatedly in recent days. Just yesterday, the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaaim said the government would comply with the United Nations Security Council resolution demanding an immediate halt of the march toward Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city.

But the reality this morning in Benghazi was one of tank shelling, rocket fire, and the first attack by Qaddafi loyalists inside the city since a popular uprising drove most of his soldiers out last month. Civilian homes were hit in the process.

France responded by scrambling its own jets around Benghazi this afternoon, and the French government later announced that it had destroyed a government tank.

'No mercy'

Today’s attacks by Qaddafi's forces came after a week of threats to show “no mercy” to the rebellion in Benghazi and a psychological operations (psyops) campaign of telephone calls to supporters of the rebellion, promising death.

Panicked residents packed into cars and drove east.

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As the city’s large hotels locked their doors, much of the international press did likewise. By noon today, the ad hoc revolutionary media center, usually a hive of political talk, amateur video production, and foreign journalists looking for working internet, was shuttered.

The courthouse next door that serves as the rebels' seat of government was empty of most of its members. This reporter left Benghazi at about 12:30 p.m. local time.

'Arab Spring' cools off

The parade away from the city past the first fig and apricot blossoms marks a turning point in the extraordinary "Arab Spring." The mostly nonviolent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt quickly drove longstanding dictators from power and had no meaningful outside involvement, a source of pride to both countries and much of the region.

But Qaddafi dug in. In short order, he plunged his country into a low-grade civil war. Now, international forces are beginning to make military forays over the country.

Now, thousands of Libyan families have been uprooted from homes in towns like Ajdabiya, Misratah, and Benghazi, at least temporarily.

As the cars streamed east today, every town and crossroads had groups of armed men pressing water, juice, cookies and bread on their passengers. Some were furiously waved into the Green Mountains, once a stronghold for the revered Omar Mukhtar, who fought the Italians for 20 years before he was captured and hung in 1931.

'We're going to push back soon'

At a stop in the shadow of the gentle range, one armed young man said. “We could fight Qaddafi from in there for 100 years if we had to,” waving toward the hills behind him. “We’re going to push back soon.”

Mixed with the fear today was a certain strange exultation, with many of Benghazi’s young residents saying they were glad that a battle was at hand, confidently predicting that God will deliver them victory. The beginning of international action is also filling the rebels with hope.

But today’s fighting in Benghazi shows it isn’t as simple as whacking exposed columns of Qaddafi’s troops on the desert roads between population centers.Today there were firefights with Qaddafi loyalists in multiple locations inside the town. This reporter was briefly with a small group of rebel militiamen who were taking rifle fire.

Qaddafi loyalists re-emerge in Benghazi

Supporters of the uprising insist that Qaddafi’s men got inside the city so quickly because they’d been there all along.

Qaddafi’s revolutionary guard, a paramilitary group dedicated to preserving his rule, had chapters in every city, and the rebels believe some were now given the order to emerge and fight as other forces have neared the city’s gate.

“We’re fairly confident that a lot of the fighting is from revolutionary guards,” said an official of the fledgling opposition at the courthouse, who asked not to be named. “We’ll hold on today, but it’s a problem.”

By late afternoon, residents in Benghazi said the fighting had quieted, which would follow the pattern of Qaddafi’s forces in recent weeks: Pound a city from afar, draw closer, strike inside town, and withdraw for the evening to see how many fighters were scared away.

With France starting international action over Libya, tomorrow will be a test of how easily Qaddafi can be deterred.

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