THE US last night fired more than 110 cruise missiles from the sea, while French fighter jets targeted Colonel Gaddafi's forces from the air, launching the broadest international military effort since the Iraq war in support of an uprising that had seemed on the verge of defeat.
The US military said 20 sites were hit as the missile strikes targeted air defence installations on or near the Mediterranean coastline, many in the western half of the country that is Gaddafi's stronghold. The French said they were focusing on the rebel-held east.
In response, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi said he will arm civilians to fight what he called "colonial, crusader" aggression by Western forces.
"It is now necessary to open the stores and arm all the masses with all types of weapons to defend the independence, unity and honour of Libya," Gaddafi said in a speech broadcast on state TV hours after the strikes began.
He also said the Mediterranean and North Africa were now a battleground, and that the interests of countries in the region would be in danger from now on.
Thousands of Libyans last night packed themselves into Gaddafi's heavily fortified Tripoli compound to form a human shield against possible air strikes. "We are here. We are ready to die for our leader," said an Arabic language teacher. She said her six sons had all volunteered to fight for Gaddafi.
"We will open up Libya's deserts and allow Africans to flood to Europe to blow themselves up as suicide bombers. We are ready to attack embassies abroad," Mustafa Abdelgadir, a 27-year-old man, told the Reuters press agency.
US leader Barack Obama said military action was not his first choice. "This is not an outcome the US or any of our partners sought," he said. "We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy."
The strikes, which were aimed at enforcing a UN-mandated no-fly zone, were a sharp escalation in the international effort to stop Gaddafi after weeks of pleading by the rebels who have seen early gains reversed as the regime unleashed the full force of its air power and weaponry.
Libyan regime officials claimed a large number of civilians were injured when several civilian and military sites in the capital, Tripoli, and the nearby city of Misrata were hit. The targets could not be independently verified.
Gaddafi also acted quickly in the run-up to the strikes, sending warplanes, tanks and troops into the city of Benghazi, the rebel capital and first city to fall to the rebellion that began in mid-February. Then the government attacks appeared to go silent.
The international strikes came hours after an emergency summit in Paris during which the 22 leaders and top officials, including Arab League leaders, agreed to do everything necessary to make Gaddafi respect a UN Security Council resolution, issued on Thursday, calling for the no-fly zone and demanding a ceasefire, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said.
"Our consensus was strong, and our resolve is clear. The people of Libya must be protected and, in the absence of an immediate end to the violence against civilians, our coalition is prepared to act and to act with urgency," President Obama said.
US and British ships and submarines launched the first phase of a missile assault on Libyan air defences to clear the way for the imposition of the UN-mandated no-fly zone.
Mohammed Ali, speaking for the exiled opposition group the Libyan Salvation Front, said the Libyan air force headquarters at the Mateiga air base in eastern Tripoli and the Aviation Academy in Misrata had been targeted. About 20 French fighter jets carried out "several strikes" earlier yesterday. One of the planes had fired the first shot against a Libyan military vehicle.
The US has struck Libya before. Former President Ronald Reagan launched US airstrikes on Libya in 1986 after a bombing at a Berlin disco -- widely blamed on Libya -- that killed three people, including two US soldiers. The airstrikes killed about 100 people, including Gaddafi's young adopted daughter at his Tripoli compound.
The rebels said earlier that they had hoped for more, sooner from the international community, after a day when shelling shook the buildings of Benghazi and Gaddafi's tanks rumbled through the university campus.
"The leadership understands some of the difficulties with procedures but when it comes to procedures versus human life, the choice is clear," said Essam Gheriani, an opposition spokesman. "People on the streets are saying where are the international forces? Is the international community waiting for the same crimes to be perpetrated on Benghazi as have been done by Gaddafi in the other cities?"
But in an open letter, Gaddafi openly warned: "You will regret it if you dare to intervene in our country."
Yesterday's fighting galvanised the people of Benghazi, with young men collecting bottles to make gasoline bombs. "This city is a symbol of the revolution, it's where it started and where it will end if this city falls," said one man.
But at Jalaa hospital, where the tile floors and walls were stained with blood, the toll was clear. "There are more dead than injured," said Dr Ahmed Radwan.
Meanwhile, Jalaa's Dr Gebreil Hewadi, a member of the rebel health committee, said city hospitals had received 27 bodies.
IT IS 400 miles from Tripoli to Benghazi, but the fighting in Libya's second city might as well be on another planet for residents of the capital, where opposition to Muammar Gaddafi has been crushed or drowned out by an orchestrated chorus of loyal support for the "brother leader".