March 19, 2011— -- More than 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles struck over 20 targets inside Libya today in the opening phase of an international military operation the Pentagon said was aimed at stopping attacks led by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and enforcing a U.N.-backed no-fly zone.
"I want the American people to know that the use of force is not our first choice and it's not a choice I make lightly," Obama said. "But we cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy."
The first air strikes, in what is being called Operation Odyssey Dawn, were launched from a mix of U.S. surface ships and one British submarine in the Mediterranean Sea at 2 p.m. ET, Vice Adm. William E. Gortney told reporters at a Pentagon briefing.
They targeted Libyan air defense missile sites, early warning radar and key communications facilities around Tripoli, Misratah, and Surt, but no areas east of that or near Benghazi. Because of darkness over Libya, Gortney said it was too early to determine the strikes' effectiveness.
Gortney said no U.S. troops were on the ground in Libya and that no U.S. aircraft participated in the initial attacks.
Libyan television reported that 48 people were killed and more than 150 wounded in the barrage, but there was no independent confirmation of the numbers.
Earlier today, as pro-Gadhafi forces battled towards the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, 20 French warplanes flew over the region in a show of force. And one jet fired on and destroyed an unidentified Libyan military vehicle, French Defense officials said.
At one point a fighter jet resembling a Libyan MiG 27 was shot down over the city, according to news reports from inside Libya.
Meanwhile, world leaders met in Paris to discuss the nature and scope of the international military intervention to make Gadhafi respect a U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized "all necessary measures" to protect Libyan civilians.
"We have every reason to fear that left unchecked, Gadhafi would commit unspeakable atrocities," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters following the meeting in Paris. "Further delay will only put more civilians at risk. So let me be very clear on the position of the United States: We will support an international coalition as it takes all necessary measures to enforce" the U.N. resolution.
But Pentagon officials cautioned that despite the initial military actions, an enforced no-fly zone over Libya was not yet in effect and will take time to establish.
"At this point we are creating the conditions to be able to set up a no fly zone, and once we have established and confirmed that the conditions are right then we will move forward into one of the next phases of the campaign," Gortney told reporters.
No U.S. aircraft will be involved in air strikes over Libya tonight, he said. "Our mission right now is to shape the battle space in such a way that our partners may take the lead in…execution."
As the campaign evolves, officials said, U.S. support aircraft would provide airborne surveillance, refueling and radar-jamming capabilities, and several F-16s may participate in patrols over no-fly zones above Tripoli and Benghazi.
In an audio statement broadcast on Libyan state TV, Gadhafi called the attacks a "crusade" against the Libyan people and called on Arab countries and African allies to come to his government's aid.
"We ask others to stand by us," he said, according to a translation of his remarks heard on Al Jazeera. "We must now open the weapons depot and arms to all Libyans."
Gadhafi warned the international coalition Friday not to interfere in Libyan affairs, calling the U.N. resolution "invalid" and appealing directly to world leaders, including President Obama, in a letter.
"Libya is not yours. Libya is for the Libyans," he said in the letter. "If you had found them taking over American cities with armed force, tell me what you would do."