Anja Niedringhaus/AP
Smoke billows over the outskirts of the rebel-held Libyan city of Benghazi Saturday morning as Libyan leader Qaddafi defied the UN's no-flight zone to attack rebels.

Libya's Qaddafi defies UN, assaults Benghazi

Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi assaulted the rebel capital of Benghazi this morning, breaking a promised cease-fire and ignoring a warning of action from the United Nations and President Obama.

Forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi denied the will of the international community and broke their own promise of a cease-fire today. Government troops bombed civilian neighborhoods in the rebel capital of Benghazi and sent in ground forces to engage the local militia.

Yesterday, President Obama demanded Mr. Qaddafi immediately stop assaulting civilians and stop his advance towards Benghazi, as well as pull back from the besieged rebel towns of Ajdabiya, Misratah, and Zawiyah.

“Let me be clear: these terms are not negotiable. These terms are not subject to negotiation,” Mr. Obama said. "If Qaddafi does not comply with the resolution the international community will impose consequences and the resolution will be enforced through military action."

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Qaddafi’s actions today would now appear to demand either an international response or a loss of credibility for the American president.

Starting at about 3 a.m., intermittent rocket fire began to hit the outskirts of Benghazi and by dawn, had drawn closer. At least three homes in the Hay Dolar area in the south of the city took rocket damage, say two witnesses who visited the homes.

“We were promised international action if Qaddafi threatened civilians,” says Nasser, a 21-year old Libyan volunteering with a neighborhood watch group in Hay Dolar. “Where is it? I’ve been in houses today that were bombed. Thank God, no one was killed, but people will start dying soon if this continues.”

By 8 a.m., at least three fires burned within the city, in areas that had come under assault. At around 9 a.m., a fighter jet in flames crashed in the south of the city, sending up a fireball and a billowing cloud of black smoke over the sky.

Most witnesses presumed the plane had been shot down, though whether it was one of Qaddafi’s planes – which have been regularly used to bomb Libyan towns in the east of the country in the past week – could not be confirmed. By 10 a.m., tank fire was ringing out every 15 minutes or so.

Rebel forces say they’ve been flying two fighters captured from Qaddafi, and there’s a small possibility the plane belonged to a foreign nation seeking to enforce the no-fly zone promised by the UN Security Council on Thursday night.

A group of reporters – including this one – tried to reach the site of the crash. After getting within a mile, we decided to approach on foot.

As we rounded a corner where a small group of rebel fighters were chattering nervously about rumored Qaddafi troop movements inside the city, small arms fire began to crack by us from the direction of the crash site. Heavier weapons, perhaps tank rounds or rockets, began to boom in our general area.

The Libyan government told Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya that it had not attacked Benghazi, and that its own forces had instead come under assault on the outskirts of the city by the rebellion's militia.

Every piece of information available on the ground here in Benghazi indicates the Libyan government’s claim is false. Even if rebel forces had sought to engage Qaddafi’s forces in the desert outside the city, most of the fire today has been directed at civilian neighborhoods within city limits.

Qaddafi and close aides like Foreign Minister Mussa Kussa, who promised Libya would comply with UN resolution 1973 and claimed yesterday that the regime had the deepest respect for the safety of its civilians, appear to be seeking to sow doubt and confusion within an international community that was split over the no-fly zone resolution.

Brazil, Russia, China, India, and Germany abstained from the 10-0 Security Council vote. Qaddafi appears to believe that by denying his forces are advancing, he’ll be able to head off international action, allowing his troops to press further against Benghazi.

Resolution 1973 promises “all necessary” measures to protect civilians, which rules in air strikes or other attacks on Qaddafi’s forces. So far, no such action has been taken.

This reporter can confirm that some Qaddafi loyalists are now fighting inside the city limits, though not their numbers or disposition. Late last night, they were at least 30 miles outside. Their lightning move forward in the pre-dawn hours this morning indicates it’s probably a light force without large numbers of slow-moving tanks.

The streets of Benghazi are now deserted, except for pickup trucks and civilian cars carrying the rebellion's lightly-armed fighters. Every neighborhood has tense young men with rifles on the roofs of their homes and at corners, wondering what comes next.

Last night, Qaddafi’s Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaaim told a press conference: "The armed forces are now located outside the city of Benghazi and we have no intention of entering Benghazi.”

Qaddafi’s forces were not outside the city at the time, but they are now, his claims apparently designed to front-run the facts on the ground that the regime is seeking to create today.

As for “no intention of entering Benghazi,” Tripoli’s actions today contradict that. This morning, at least some of Qaddafi’s troops were in town, and opening fire in crowded residential neighborhoods.

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