The French attack came less than a day after a senior RAF commander claimed the allied forces had all but destroyed Muammar Gaddafi’s air force.
Speaking at the southern Italian air base of Gioio del Colle, where the British force is stationed, RAF Group Captain Martin Sampson said: “I think it sends a powerful message that the coalition planes in the air at the moment are flying equipped to deal with anything that Gaddafi throws at them and if he does fly planes we’re effecting a no-fly zone and one of the ways we do that is to shoot a plane down if necessary.”
As allied planes struck Libya again last night he dismissed suggestions that France was playing a more aggressive role than Britain, describing the operation as a “coalition team effort, a collective effort”.
He said: “We don’t keep a tally between the French, the US, the British or anyone else. It’s a coalition and how we perform as a coalition.
France’s joint chiefs of staff said their surveillance aircraft noticed the Libyan combat plane flying near the coastal city of Misrata.
The French Rafale fighter jet attacked with a guided air-to-ground missile after it landed at an air base.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the no-fly zone was established and British forces had so far taken part in 59 aerial missions, as well as air and missile strikes.
He told MPs that he wanted to see operations moved from the command of the United States to NATO “as quickly as possible”.
With Washington insisting the US will step back from its leading role within days, Prime Minister David Cameron wants NATO to take the lead.
But French President Nicolas Sarkozy, backed by Turkey and Germany, wants the Alliance kept in a support role, with strategic decisions taken only by the governments in the military coalition.
Cameron and Sarkozy delivered an update over dinner last night at a summit in Brussels, insisting fighter jets hit aircraft and a crossroads military base deep inside Libya and NATO sailors prepared to board suspect ships, blocking new weapons and foreign fighters from resupplying Moammar Gadhafi’s depleted forces by land, sea and air.
France set a timeframe on the international action at days or weeks — not months.
The possibility of a looming deadline raised pressure on rebel forces. So did the arms embargo, which keeps both Gaddafi and his outgunned opposition from getting more weapons.
The rebels were so strapped yesterday that they handed out sneakers — and not guns — at one of their checkpoints.
“We are facing cannons, T-72 and T-92 tanks, so what do we need? We need anti-tank weapons, things like that,” said Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, a military spokesman told reporters in Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital.
“We are preparing our army now. Before there was no army, from now there is an idea to prepare a new army with new armaments and new morals.”
The Gaddafi regime appeared equally hard-pressed, asking international forces to spare its broadcast and communications infrastructure.
“Communications, whether by phones or other uses, are civilian and for the good of the Libyan nation to help us provide information, knowledge and coordinate everyday life. If these civilian targets are hit, it will make life harder for millions of civilians around Libya,” Moussa Ibrahim, a government spokesman, told reporters in Tripoli.
Representatives for the two sides were expected to attend an African Union meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia today, according to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, who described it as a part of an effort to reach a ceasefire and political solution.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the international action would last days or possibly weeks, but not months. But he told RTL radio that in addition to protecting civilians, the mission “is also about putting Gaddafi’s opponents, who are fighting for democracy and freedom, in a situation of taking back the advantage.”
NATO appeared to move closer to assuming command of the military operation in Libya when Turkey’s foreign minister was quoted as saying an agreement has been reached.
Libyan state television showed blackened and mangled bodies that it said were victims of airstrikes in Tripoli. Rebels have accused Gaddafi’s forces of taking bodies from the morgue and pretending they are civilian casualties.
The French strikes hit a base about 250km south of the Libyan coastline, as well as a Libyan combat plane that had just landed outside the strategic city of Misrata, France’s military said.
In Tripoli, Libyan deputy foreign minister Khaled Kaim said the “military compound at Juffra” was among the targets hit.
Juffra is one of at least two air bases deep in Libya’s interior, on main routes that lead from neighbouring countries in the Sahara region that have been suppliers of arms and fighters for the regime.
The town of Sabha, about 620km south of Tripoli, has another air base and international airport and is a major transit point for the ethnic Tuareg fighters from Mali and Niger who have fought for Gaddafi for the past two decades.
UN human rights experts said hundreds of people have disappeared in Libya over the past few months, and said there were fears that those who vanished were taken to secret locations to be tortured or executed.
- The Government has pledged €250,000 towards the evacuation of civilians fleeing from the conflict in Libya. The funding for the International Organisation for Migration (IoM) will be used to repatriate foreign nationals desperate to cross into Egypt and Tunisia.
Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Eamon Gilmore said the funds “will allow the IoM to take people from the camps and get them home.”