BRASILIA—An international military coalition began efforts to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya Saturday, with the French government announcing that its planes were in the air over the North African country.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the deployment of French fighter jets at an international conference in Paris on the Libyan crisis. It was the first military action following the decision by the United Nations Security Council on Thursday to take action against the government of Muammar Qadhafi.
The French planes were deployed amidst reports that Libyan forces loyal to Qadhafi had launched an attack on the rebel-held stronghold of Benghazi. Analysts have predicted widespread civilian casualties if Qadhafi loyalists try to retake the city.
“Our planes are blocking the air attacks on the city” of Benghazi, Sarkozy said according to wire reports. “Our determination is total.”
French fighters were prepared to attack Libyan tanks near Benghazi, a French official told the Associated Press.
There were no indications of immediate actions by U.S. military forces.
Appearing with Brazilian President Dilma Vana Rouseff here this afternoon, President Barack Obama did not specifically mention the French action. He said he had briefed Rouseff on the Libyan situation, and repeated the language he used after the Security Council’s action, which Brazil did not support.
“Our consensus was strong and our resolve is clear. The people of Libya must be protected. In the absence of an immediate end to the violence against civilians, our coalition is prepared to act and act with urgency.
Earlier Saturday, Qadhafi sent a defiant letter to Obama.
“I have all the Libyan people with me, and I’m prepared to die, and they are prepared to die for me — men, women, and even children,” Qadhafi said, according to a BBC translation. “We are confronting al Qaeda, in what they are called al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb, nothing more…. What would you do if you found them controlling American cities with the power of weapons? Tell me, how would you behave, so I could follow your example.”
Asked about the letter, a White House spokesman pointed to Obama’s comments Friday in Washington where he called the rights of the Libyan people “not negotiable.”
In a second letter addressed to Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Qadhafi attacked what he said was the U.N.’s unjustified intervention in Libyan internal affairs.
“Libya is not yours. Libya is for all Libyans. The resolutions of the Security Council are invalid because the Security Council is not authorized, … to intervene in the internal affairs of any country. This is injustice, it’s a clear aggression, and it’s uncalculated risk for its consequences on the Mediterranean and Europe.”
The setting for Obama’s first comments about coalition military action in Libya was an inopportune one, since Brazil abstained during Thursday’s U.N. Security Council vote on the resolution imposing a no-fly zone.
Brazil’s ambassador to the U.N., Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, said the measure went too far and risked being perceived as an assault on Libya rather than the enforcement of international human rights norms.
“Such measures may have the unintended effects of exacerbating tensions on the ground and causing more harm than good to the very same civilians we are committed to protecting,” Viotti said. She also said the use of force “could change [the prevailing] narrative in ways that may have serious repercussions for the situation in Libya and beyond.”
The White House originally said Obama and Rousseff would take questions from the press during their appearance on Saturday, but Obama aides said the Brazilian government later insisted that there be no questions. None were taken.
A Brazilian Foreign Ministry official said Saturday the no-questions protocol was in keeping with the new Brazilian president’s handling of visits by other world leaders, albeit not quite of Obama’s stature. “It’s not her way. She didn’t do it with the prime minister of East Timor either,” the Brazilian source said