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Reports of Fighter Jet Dropping to Ground in Libya Over Benghazi

Aired March 19, 2011 - 04:00   ET


NATALIE ALLEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: And hello, I'm Natalie Allen at CNN Center. We want to welcome viewers from the United States and around the world, we have breaking news from Libya at this hour.

Our own reporters have seen a fighter jet drop to the ground over the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. It has been at the heart of the anti-government struggle since protests began in the eastern part of the North African country. It is the second largest city in Libya.

These latest events happening as the government in Libya says it's observing a U.N.-ordered cease-fire. Opposition forces contest the claim saying they are under attack.

The new fighting comes just as a meeting happens in Paris to coordinate efforts to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya.

And now to the capital of Libya, Tripoli, where senior international correspondent Nic Robertson is standing by with the latest details from there.

Nic, what do you know, in light of these developments that we're just finding out about?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Well, only about six or seven hours ago, government officials here were insisting that not only were they observing the no-fly zone.

They were also telling us that no aircraft had been used for several days, that they had not been bombing civilians, that aircraft had not been part of the flight, and that, indeed, what we were hearing and what were being told were rumors that nobody could substantiate.

The reports now coming from Benghazi that over night there have been bombing runs by Libyan government fighter jets. And now that confirmation by our own reporters in the east of the country who have witnessed this incident taking place, obviously there's complete variance with what the government here is saying and call into question as of yesterday called into question government claims that they're observing this cease-fire. Overnight, also, we heard from government officials appealing for international monitors to come from China, from Malta, Germany, and Turkey. The government said that it's been appealing for international monitors to come and witness the situation here, to show that the government was observing the cease-fire. They said that they were choosing these particular countries because they thought they would be more sympathetic to Libya's case.

But it appears to indicate the intense frustration at the isolation that Libya is feeling at the moment, that they are choosing these countries and appealing to for monitors from those countries to urgently to come to Libya and to prove what -- to prove their claims.

ALLEN: Right. And amid all of this, the meeting going on in Paris concerning the no-fly zone, so we may see -- we could see even more fighter jets in the skies over Libya after what has just occurred right now.

And is it true that we're not sure if this was an opposition jet or a government jet that was shot down, Nic? Any way of knowing?

ROBERTSON: It's still not clear at this stage. The jets of the rebels -- that the rebels have had access to are the same, obviously, as the Libyan Air Force, these were captured planes. As they had captured some helicopters, they have managed to recondition or claim to have managed to recondition at least one of the helicopters to get it in a flight-worthy state. So the aircraft would have come originally from a Libyan Air Force, so at the moment the precise details do not appear to be clear.

But the fact that claims continue today, Saturday, that the Libyan government is ignoring the cease-fire, again, come at a variance from what the Libyan government is telling us. Indeed, the Libya government officials woke us up overnight for a very short press conference to -- by the deputy prime minister to highlight an incident where they said that the rebels had attacked a small town, Almokra (ph), not so far from Benghazi.

And the government said that they could confirm that the Libya -- that the Libyan government has in fact -- the rebels, the Libyan government said that rebels had in fact been on their own offensive and the government could confirm this through independent news reports, their own government forces, and what they were hearing from the Libyan Army.

ALLEN: OK, Nic Robertson for us. He's covering the story from Tripoli and we'll keep in close contact with you, Nic, as we find out more about these developments.

U.S. President Barack Obama indicated Friday the U.S. will not be taking the lead in enforcing this no-fly zone. CNN's Hala Gorani and John King discuss the complicated logistics of enforcing it.


HALA GORANI, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: How would the imposition of this no-fly zone work? Strikes have to proceed sort of securing the airspace over Libya, where would they come from?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, let's take a closer look, Hala.

There's a lot we don't know, and we need to be clear about that. The United States, for example, has insisted there be significant participation. We know the UAE and Qatar have said they are likely to participate.

But if you imagine this circle, then you're going to impose a no- fly zone over Libya, one of the first steps you might want to take, I'm going to bring up right here, these are Libyan air installations across the country. One of the first steps that normally happens in a no-fly zone is you try to take out some of the runways.

You see here, this is a U.S. Marine photo of a runway that has been essentially pocked. You bomb it from above so that Libyan planes can't take off and land.

Now, they can repair those, but that's one key step to look for in the early days. Take out especially along the key northern areas. Tripoli over here, oil and gas towns over here. Take out places that Gadhafi has been and could use in the future his air force. That's one step.

One thing they need to worry about as that plays out, though, as you close this down is one of the reasons Secretary of Gates was so reluctant about doing this is Libya does not have the most advanced military in the world, a lot of it is outdated, but they do have a lot of significant and powerful aircraft and surface-to-air missiles located, again, in the key cities along the northern coast.

These purple circles, those are longer range surface-to-air missiles that Gadhafi could fire at any jets if they came in, whether they were American jets, British jets, French jets. He does have a significant network here. If there are to be early strikes as part of this, Hala, look for these to be the targets.

GORANI: And do we know if these have to be fighter jet strikes or if they could originate, say, from naval vessels in the Mediterranean, John?

KING: It's an excellent question. They could be either or, or both.

I want to close this down a little bit.

We know there are five or six U.S. naval vessels in there right now. Some of them are marine amphibious landing vehicles.

But we also are told that the United States does have the capability in the region already to launch cruise missile strikes. That would be the preferred, less risky.

There also are some U.S. drone, unmanned aircraft in the area that could launch strikes as well as we've seen play out in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

That's one place to look for, attacks coming off naval vessels, U.S. and potentially others in the Mediterranean Sea.

And the U.S. also has other assets over here they could bring up through the Suez Canal, if necessary, again, that are watching those situations in Yemen and elsewhere.

Another prospect, NATO air bases in Italy. You remember the Bosnia no-fly zone, almost all of the flights back in the Bosnia experience in the 1990s were flown out of NATO air bases in Italy by American and other NATO countries.

GORANI: And how precise is the intelligence on Libyan military installations?

KING: We are told that especially in recent weeks the intelligence has intensified dramatically. There are NATO, largely U.S. AWACs jets -- radar planes, essentially -- that are watching what's happening down below. There are drones being used as well.

And, look, let's be -- you know, we've had a little bit of a rough spot in relations with the Egyptian military of late during all the upheaval there, but we also know the United States military still has a very good and professional relationship with Egypt, which gives you some eavesdropping capabilities from here as well.

So there's no question. When you talk to people at the Pentagon or people at NATO, they believe they have very good intelligence, they believe they have overwhelming force and that they could easily wipe out the Libyan military if it came to that. But it's not without risks of pilots being shot down or civilians being killed.

And so, there are a number -- number of complicating issues, which is why you've had such caution in the U.S. administration. But we now do expect, Hala, to see some of this play out potentially within hours.

GORANI: And the concern is that any no-fly zone in the past, historically, has never functioned fully without any ground troop presence to ensure sort of the protection of civilians in certain areas.

Is that a concern as far as the United States is concerned? Is that something that might even planned for in the future?

KING: Well, the president of the United States has been emphatic that there will be no American military presence on the ground in Libya.

But you make a key point. I want to go back again to the surface-to-air missile locations here. If you bring them up and you see them right here, imagine an American or a British or a French pilot being shot down and taken prisoner. That's a possibility here that the United States and its allies are worried about. Just look at the risk of death here, there's no question about that. And another question that comes up, Hala -- let me close this down a bit and bring this up -- another question that comes up, of course, is is this too late. You've heard the opposition begging for this help.

This is a map we used a couple weeks ago showing the opposition in green here had taken control of so many important cities, again, along the north coast. If you come and look now, if you sweep across, because of Gadhafi's run, his forces and his mercenaries coming across, you see the regime has taken back control. You see the opposition here largely in Benghazi. Even this map might be a bit too generous to the opposition and its control because Gadhafi's forces have come even more to the east.

So one of the questions is as this plays out is, yes, there's risks in a no-fly zone; yes, there's risks once you take sides. Are you committing to help the opposition if in fact just a no-fly zone or just some air strikes, what if it doesn't change the balance of power? Have you then committed to do more to help the opposition?

GORANI: All right, John King, thanks very much.

KING: Thank you.


ALLEN: All right, and elsewhere in the region, in Yemen, a state of emergency after deadly clashes. Medical officials say at least 40 people were killed.

Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters clashing with security forces in the capital. State television showed the chaos. There are reports of more than 100 people hurt, and the interior minister says there are casualties on both sides.

France and the U.S. are urging Yemen to allow peaceful protests.

Now to Egypt where polls are open in the first post-Mubarak election, and it is controversial. Thousands gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square Friday urging Egyptians to vote no to a series of constitutional changes to be put to a referendum today.

The country's military council proposed the changes as the next step toward democratic rule. Critics, however, say the timetable is moving too fast and the changes don't go far enough.

Ahead for our viewers in the United States, we will join "IN THE ARENA."

For our international viewers, we'll have an update from Japan. Elevated radiation just found in food in Japan. We'll have that story as we continue.