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French Fighter Jets Fire Upon Libyan Military Vehicles as Offensive Begins

French fighter jets fired shots at Libyan armored vehicles today in two separate incidents in the first reported engagement of international forces against Muammar Qaddafi and his loyalists, who have scorned calls for a cease-fire.

The first jet “neutralized” a vehicle at 2:45 p.m. local time, said Colonel Thierry Burkhard, a French defense ministry spokesman. Details of a separate attack on four tanks were provided by a military source who could not be named because of defense ministry rules. The strike occurred as coalition forces imposed a naval blockade of Libya, according to a Sky News report.

European, U.S. and Arab officials had gathered in Paris earlier to discuss the situation in Libya and the enforcement of a no-fly zone. Even as they met, Qaddafi’s forces attacked the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in defiance of their pledge and international demands for a cease-fire, television stations reported.

“Right now our planes are blocking air strikes on the city” of Benghazi, French President Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters today before the strike. “French planes are ready to act against armored vehicles that would be threatening unarmed civilians.”

U.S. Support

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. will support international efforts to protect civilians. “America has unique capabilities, and we will bring them to bear to help our European and Canadian allies and Arab partners stop future violence against civilians,” she said at a news conference in Paris.

Clinton said the U.S. would support “all necessary measures” to implement a United Nations-authorized no-fly zone, while reiterating President Barack Obama who said that the U.S. doesn’t plan to send ground troops to the country.

The Libyan revolt is the bloodiest of popular uprisings in the Middle East this year that have toppled Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. There have also been anti-government demonstrations in Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Syria, Algeria, Iran, Iraq and Oman, calling for democracy and improved living standards.

“The time for action has come,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said today. It is “vitally important action takes place, urgently.”

Unanimous Vote

The UN Security Council voted March 17 to ground Qaddafi’s air force and to grant military authority to the U.S. and its allies to protect civilians and population centers threatened by his forces.

The UN’s principal policy-making panel voted 10-0, with five abstentions, to adopt a resolution that establishes a no- fly zone over Libya, demands a cease-fire and allows “all necessary measures” to protect civilians “excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.”

Brazil, China, Germany, India and Russia abstained.

Libya’s crude oil exports may be halted for “many months” because of damage to facilities and international sanctions, the International Energy Agency said March 15. Crude oil for April delivery slipped 9 cents to $101.07 a barrel this week on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The conflict, which has left hundreds dead, has sent futures up about 23 percent from a year ago.

Al-Jazeera cited the head of the rebel council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, as saying bombing raids took place in Benghazi, which has about 1 million people. There is no indication that Qaddafi is following through on his regime’s pledge to observe UN demands for a cease-fire, a State Department official said.

Arab Leaders

Arab officials attending the Paris summit included Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, Morocco’s Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri and Qatar Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jasim Al Thani, according to an e-mailed list of the participants.

Qaddafi must “immediately end the acts of violence carried out against civilians,” according to a joint statement issued after the meeting in Paris.

“We cannot allow the slaughter to continue,” Cameron said.

‘Without Any Limits’

The U.K is deploying Tornado and BAE Systems Plc Eurofighter Typhoon jets. Italy’s cabinet approved the use of as many as seven air bases for the operation. Italy is only providing bases, not aircraft, for the mission for the moment, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said. The NATO base in Naples will probably be the main center for coordinated international action, Berlusconi told reporters in Paris.

Libya has about 30 sites with surface-to-air (SAM) missiles, linked to 15 early-warning radar, that pose a “significant threat” to foreign warplanes over or near Libyan airspace, according to information provided by the Pentagon.

Libya has a limited air force, with about 80 percent of its aircraft “non-operational.” Libyan pilot training levels and air combat tactics “have remained far inferior to those of U.S. pilots and well-trained Middle Eastern pilots,” such as those from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, according to the Pentagon.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates postponed a trip to Russia, scheduled to begin today, to monitor developments in Libya from Washington, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said by telephone to reporters gathered at Andrews Air Force base to travel with Gates.

CF-18 Jets

Canada will deploy six CF-18 fighter jets, Postmedia News reported, citing people not identified by name.

Norway will contribute as many as six F-16s and one Orion plane with crew of about 100 in five to 10 days, Aftenposten reported today citing Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg.

Denmark has sent six F-16s to the U.S. Naval Air Station at Sigonella in Sicily, several of which are likely to be in Libyan airspace Sunday, Danish news agency Ritzau and newspaper Jyllands-Posten said today.

Qatar plans to take part in the mission to protect Libyan civilians under the UN resolution, the state-run Qatar News Agency.

The U.S. sent as many as 1,200 Marines and two Navy vessels, including the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge, to the Mediterranean Sea off the Libyan coast, Gates said March 1. The U.S. is also monitoring Libyan airspace.

To contact the reporters on this story: Helene Fouquet in Paris at hfouquet1@bloomberg.net; Leon Mangasarian in Berlin at lmangasarian@bloomberg.net;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at jhertling@bloomberg.net; Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

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