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Coalition Air Strikes Reportedly Hit Main Libyan Air Force Base in Tripoli

Aired March 19, 2011 - 21:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, the sounds of explosions and heavy gunfire echoing across Libya's capital. U.S. missiles light Mediterranean sky. Operation Odyssey Dawn underway -- a coalition of western and Arab states are unleashing strikes on Libyan targets right now, French warplanes leading the assault. The allies' goal: to stop Moammar Gadhafi from butchering his own citizens to stay in power.

Tonight, he shows no signs of backing down, at least not yet. A spokesman for his embattled government calls the allied attack, I'm quoting now, "barbaric."

Good evening. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We'd like to welcome our viewers watching us tonight from around the world.

This is a special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM, "Target Libya."

But we begin with breaking news: CNN is live tonight across Libya with what's going on. Our senior international correspondent Nic Robertson is reporting from Tripoli, where sounds of attacks echoed through the night only within the past few moments. Our correspondent Arwa Damon is also with us. She's in Benghazi where rebels have been trying to hold on to that city.

Let's get to both of them in just a moment. But first, in just the last hour, we've heard explosions and gunfire across Tripoli.


BLITZER: No word yet who exactly is behind it -- it comes only hours after Libya first felt the brunt of Operation Odyssey Dawn. A barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles rained down earlier on military targets in Libya after French jets attacked a military vehicle near the rebel- held town of Benghazi.

A fighter jet belonging to the opposition was shot out of the sky there. And on the ground in Benghazi, witnesses tell CNN they came under artillery assaults from Gadhafi's forces, prompting many to simply run for their lives.

Let's go right back to Libya, including Nic Robertson. He's in Tripoli. Arwa Damon in Benghazi.

Nic, let me start with you. Set the scene for us -- what has happened where you are only within the past few minutes? NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there were a couple of very loud explosions followed by bursts and barrages of anti-aircraft gunfire, and tracer rounds from that heavy, heavy anti-aircraft gunfire flying up into the sky, high over the trees around the woods where we are. The gunfire sounded as if it was coming from Moammar Gadhafi's palace complex, about a mile or so away from where we're located.

We were in that complex a little earlier this evening. There was a pro-Gadhafi rally. We saw heavy anti-aircraft guns dug into the walls in some of the areas around that palace, soldiers manning those weapons. It's not clear to us if it was those weapons that were firing, but certainly firing heavy anti-aircraft rounds and while they were firing -- again, there were another couple of loud explosions in the distance, perhaps a couple of miles away.

It's impossible for us to know at this time what caused those explosions but they sounded to me as if they could have been, as if they could have been from this size and the sound, they could have been cruise missiles landing and exploding -- certainly a very heavy reverberation. We've heard a couple of sporadic bursts of heavy anti- aircraft gunfire, a few shots fired. But it does seem to have gone quite in the past few minutes here, Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic, you were in Baghdad 20 years ago when our old friend and colleague Bernie Shaw uttered those famous words, "The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated." Now, it seems the skies over Tripoli have been illuminated.

Give us the sense of the same versus the difference as to what happened then and what's happening now.

ROBERTSON: Well, Wolf, in 1991, and again in 2003, what we heard and saw over the skies of Baghdad, something different to what we're seeing and hearing here. In Iraq, you could hear the anti-aircraft guns picking up, getting louder and louder and louder as the cruise missiles and aircraft came closer to the center of the city.

What Saddam Hussein had was an anti-aircraft system that was radar -- had a radar warning system attached to it. So, as the missiles came in closer, the anti-aircraft batteries on the outskirts of the city picked up. And then, so, as they came closer to the center of the city, the anti-aircraft batteries there picked up in the center of the city, et cetera.

What we're seeing in Tripoli are perhaps just a couple of lone anti- aircraft guns firing in the sky. So, we're not seeing those huge, long multiple long lines of wavering tracer fire going up, illuminators as it was back then, green by the night vision equipment we were using, wavering in the sky. We had multiple scenes back then, multiple anti-aircraft gunfire illuminating the sky.

Now, it's just one or two we were able to see from our vantage point here. One anti-aircraft gun, heavy weapon, perhaps four barrels with the one we saw earlier, firing those tracer rounds which were flying up into the sky, moving around as if they were moving the weapon, trying to find their target in the sky, Wolf.

BLITZER: And just to precise, Nic, what time is it approximately in Tripoli right now?

ROBERTSON: Wolf, it's just after 3:00 in the morning here. So, the dead of night. It was perhaps 2:30 or thereabouts when we first heard these explosions and the anti-aircraft weaponry picked up, Wolf.

BLITZER: Stand by for a moment.

I want to go to Benghazi right now, that's the second largest city in Libya. It's still under the control of the rebels. Our Arwa Damon is there.

I assume the opposition -- and remember, there were about 800,000 people that live in Benghazi. This is a major city. I assume they're pretty excited about the possibility now that the U.S., the Europeans, some of the Arab countries, they are directly getting involved militarily on their behalf.

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Definitely, Wolf. And that is especially coming as a relief given the attack that took place, carried out by Gadhafi's forces that began some 24 hours ago where we saw artillery rounds landing in the city, where Gadhafi's forces shot down one of the opposition aircrafts that they have. They do have a handful of aircraft that they've managed to repair, get off the ground. Obviously, they're going to be needing to fly those anymore.

It was a fairly intense battle here. Residents that we were speaking to in that area that Gadhafi's forces began their assault in saying that they saw some of his troops on top of their vehicles manning their machine guns firing indiscriminately into civilian buildings and laughing all the way.

Now, it did turn out that the opposition was able to drive Gadhafi's troops out, but the situation afterwards remained calm but very, very tense, Wolf. We were actually expecting the city to erupt into celebratory gunfire once it was confirmed that U.S. missiles had, in fact, begun taking out some of Gadhafi's assets, and that was not quite the case -- which just goes to underscore what so many people have told us, and that is this is not yet a victory for them. They do expect Gadhafi's forces to try to carry out some sort of an assault.

Again, they do not trust that this is finished in the sense that he is going to just back off, back down, somehow stick to the turns of the ceasefire that many here want to see implemented. The fighters are getting ready for battle, still very alert at this stage, Wolf.

BLITZER: I know, Arwa, you're talking to these opposition forces, the rebels, their military commanders. Do we have a good sense who these Libyan troops supporting Gadhafi are? Are they -- are they regular Libyan army personnel or are they mercenaries, hired guns, if you will, from other countries?

DAMON: Well, Wolf, the opposition maintains and insists that Gadhafi has basically bussed in and flown in a number of mercenaries and that is how he is beefing up his ranks. We have yet to see concrete evidence of that.

What Gadhafi has around him is not what one would think in terms of a large conventional army. What he has maintained around him in terms of his troops force is a fairly loyal, small in size, battalion size, the number of battalions of troops that he has kept around him, and that is who people say they are fighting against.

However, they do have this extra element, fighting against Gadhafi supporters, dressed as civilians. Many people are telling us that every single neighborhood has its own Gadhafi supporters and even in Benghazi, the neighborhood people know who these individuals are. They deliberately did not target them because they did not want to cause more internal unrest.

What we did hear is when the assault on Benghazi was taking place, in a number of neighborhoods, these small pro-Gadhafi pockets, sleeper cells if you want to call them that, began coming out to the streets and firing. So, this does remain an issue of great concern as well. What are these pockets that remain loyal to him going to do in the days ahead as these strikes do continue?

But when it does come to the forces he has, there was an interesting thing that took place. There's a building on the main road coming in in the southern part of the city, which is what Gadhafi's forces used to assault. And one of these buildings that opposition says Gadhafi troops was using to fire artillery from, and when the opposition forces entered it, they found 13 men in military uniform whose hands had been bound behind them and they had been executed. The opposition here believing that these were men who perhaps refused to fight their own countrymen.

And we have also heard reports that some of those within his ranks are beginning to defect. There are a lot of different dynamics here, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let me go back to Nic Robertson in Tripoli, that's where Gadhafi's loyalists are, of course, headquartered.

Nic, based on what you're seeing, I know the U.S., the coalition effort is to get a crack going, dissension going between Gadhafi and his own military -- to get them to move away from him. Do you see any evidence, at least publicly -- and I know you're restricted in what you can see -- that these cracks are developing?

ROBERTSON: There are no signs of it that we've been able to see yet, Wolf, any cracks. And perhaps our best access to the military was just a couple of days ago in Ajdabiya, just outside of Benghazi. And the troops at that stage then who were essentially on a roll of victories were in very good spirits, very happy -- in fact, trigger happy, firing in the air a lot.

There was no sense of that stage, that this was any compunction about rolling into the cities that were ahead of them. They did say the thing that held them back were the fact that there were civilians that the rebels were hiding behind. Obviously, it was absolutely impossible for us to verify that.

But these were troops that seemed very happy with the task at hand. And the soldiers we saw tonight at Moammar Gadhafi's palace seemed perhaps a little tenser than we've seen troops around here who'd often been quite relax. Tonight, we haven't seen cracks at all. They seem very much to me that these are troops that are still loyal at this stage, Wolf.

BLITZER: I want both of you to stand by for a moment because I want to bring in our Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence.

This has been a dramatic development. The Pentagon very reluctant to get involved militarily in Libya, but the U.S. military is now, shall we say, all in.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. To a certain extent, yes. In these early stages, in terms of taking out his air defenses, the U.S. military is all in. But it looks like they will be deferring a lot of the enforcement of the no-fly zone once it is established to more of the European jets, the European pilots.

But for now, what we saw was them taking direct aim and targeting some of his surface-to-air missile sites. Some of these have the capability to reach up to 150, perhaps even 170 or 180 miles offshore. By firing Tomahawk missiles from the ships, they were able to target some of these missile sites without actually putting, say, flight crews at risk trying to fly over these assets.

Take a look at what a Pentagon official said just a few hours ago in trying to describe where they targeted and comparing that to where the no-fly zone will eventually hope to be established.


VICE ADMIRAL WILLIAM GORTNEY, U.S. NAVY CENTRAL COMMAND: Most of them are on or near the coast, a fact which made their destruction vital to the enforcement of a no-fly zone since so much of the air activity we have seen and so much of the regime's military efforts have been in this part of the country.

At this point, we are creating the conditions to be able to set up the no-fly zone. And once we have established and confirmed that the conditions are right, then we will move forward into the next -- one of the next phases of the campaign.


LAWRENCE: The next phases, one of those would be continuing to pound some of his air defense sites. It's not just a matter of these ballistic missiles, but also anti-aircraft guns and weaponry.

And I was told by a Pentagon official that ground forces wouldn't necessarily be off the table. That they too could be attacked because the Pentagon felt that some of Colonel Gadhafi's ground forces contained the ability or had the ability with them to fire on aircraft, Wolf. BLITZER: Chris, 20 years ago, I was in your shoes. I was the Pentagon correspondent for CNN the night the air war started in Iraq against Saddam Hussein to liberate Kuwait at the time.

And I remember that night very vividly. The halls at the Pentagon were jammed. The parking lots were full. There was an excitement obviously.

The U.S. was going to war. It was a lot different, 500,000 U.S. troops had been deployed to Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf to go ahead and launch this liberation of Kuwait.

But set the scene for us. What's the mood? What's it like at the Pentagon on this night?

LAWRENCE: Well, we know that Secretary Gates was supposed to leave for Russia today on a pre-planned trip. He canceled that trip and he stayed here in Washington. He's been on the phone talking to the national security adviser.

Normally, here in the Pentagon, it would be, you know, pretty empty on a Saturday. There were a lot of people here, Wolf.

But I don't think there was anything to the level of what probably you saw 20 years ago by the simple fact, is I don't think there are any plans right now for the U.S. to sort of continue this on a long-term basis, to insert ground troops into this area. It seems as if the U.S. effort will be -- the biggest role that the U.S. may play may be right now in the very initial stages of taking out his air defenses as this goes on, you may see the U.S. role decrease. Whereas, I think back in that conflict with Iraq, obviously, the U.S. role got dramatically bigger.

BLITZER: Yes, I remember that night, the defense secretary at the time, Dick Cheney, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, they were there in what they call the TAC, the National Military Command Center. They were watching what's going on.

And I assume, albeit on a much smaller scale, that's what is going on where you are right now.

LAWRENCE: It is, although we were told that Secretary Gates wasn't necessarily here in the building today, but that again, he had been making these phone calls, constantly loop in on a lot of these conference calls and getting the intelligence from the field commanders.

It's interesting when you look at the comparisons to Iraq in talking about instituting a no-fly zone, the no-fly zone worked very well in northern Iraq. But in that case, you had the Kurdish militias controlling the ground. The no-fly zone that was instituted over southern Iraq did not stop Saddam Hussein from attacking and killing -- his forces from killing thousands of Shiites there, because there was no control on the ground.

So, this situation in Libya is closer, really, if you want to make that comparison to southern Iraq rather than a no-fly zone over northern Iraq where allies, the Kurdish militia, allies, control that ground there.

BLITZER: And we're just getting this in, Chris. Listen to this and I want our viewers around the world to listen. We're just getting a statement in from the British Ministry of Defense in London.

The statement -- the headline being that the British air force is now launching air strikes against targets in Libya. Let me read the statement to our viewers.

"British armed forces as authorized by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, have participated in a coordinated strike against Libyan air defense systems. In addition to the Tomahawk land attack missiles launched from a Trafalgar class submarine" -- we know about that earlier in the day -- "I can now confirm" -- this is a statement from Major General John Lorimer, the strategic communications officer for the chief of defense staff in London, he says, "I can now confirm that the Royal Air Force has also launched Stormshadow missiles from a number of Tornado GR4 fast jets, which flew direct from Royal Air Force Marham as part of a coordinated coalition plan to enforce the resolution," the U.N. Security Council resolution.

So, it's now confirmation that not only the French air force has launched airstrikes against targets in Libya, but now, the British air force, Chris Lawrence, has done exactly the same thing in addition to the Tomahawk cruise missile launch that occurred earlier in the day. So, clearly, this war is escalating.

LAWRENCE: And, again, look at the -- look at the dynamic there. The United States ships providing the Tomahawk cruise missiles to attack some of the sites. They say that they hit 20 of those missile sites, and it is the French jets and the British jets that are actually doing a lot of the actually flying over those sites.

We were told that the first Tomahawk missiles landed about 3:00 Eastern Time. And that they would need between six to 12 hours to really start to get an assessment of exactly what they hit, how much damage was done by what those Tomahawk missiles hit.

Well, now that it's past 9:00, we're getting into the window where they may be able to start to get some of the very first assessments of exactly how much they were able to degrade Colonel Gadhafi's air defenses, Wolf.

BLITZER: And a separate statement we're getting from the British defense secretary, Liam Fox, pointing out that these British jets flew 3,000 miles from Royal Air Force Base Marham and back, making this, in his words, "the longest range bombing mission conducted by the Royal Air Force since the Falklands conflict with Argentina."

So, it's obviously a significant development, the defense minister of Britain saying that Britain will not -- will not allow the Libyan regime of Moammar Gadhafi to win this war. They're going to comply with the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973.

All right. Guys, stand by. Everyone, stand by. We're following the breaking news.

President Obama certainly is vowing that he will not put American troops on the ground in Libya. That's what he is saying publicly. He said it yesterday, repeated it today. But he's also saying the world has little choice but to defend the citizens of Libya from the threat of slaughter.

He discussed the military action while on a tour of Brazil.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am deeply aware of the risks of any military action, no matter what limits we place on them. I want the American people to know that the use of force is not our first choice, and it's not a choice that I make lightly. But we cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy and his forces stepped up their assaults on cities like Benghazi and Misratah, where innocent men and women face brutality and death at the hands of their own government.

So we must be clear: actions have consequences, and the writ of the international community must be enforced.


BLITZER: Strong words from the president of the United States.

Meanwhile, French, British and American forces are working together to degrade Libya's air defenses. But just what could a no-fly zone accomplish? How dangerous is it for coalition forces?

We'll get some answers when we come back.


BLITZER: French jets take off, the allied gauntlet comes down. A coalition of western and Arab nations launching the first strikes on Libya.

Welcome back to our special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM.

It's now early Sunday morning in Libya and the government there is under siege. Operation Odyssey Dawn is underway. The coalition of western and Arab nations hammering away at Gadhafi's military.

Let's take a closer look from both the military and diplomatic angles.

Joining us now is retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt. He's joining us from here in Washington.

General, the British now saying they've launched their own airstrikes. The French earlier had airstrikes. The U.S. and the British earlier in the day launched Tomahawk cruise missiles.

It looks like phase two of this military operation against Gadhafi has started. GEN. MARK KIMMITT, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Well, it certainly does, and it certainly looks like it's much more than just a simple no-fly operation. It is clear that the objectives are well beyond simply assuring that the aircraft of the Libyan air force fly -- don't fly. It looks like the objectives and the end state that the militaries are seeking is far more profound than simply keeping airplanes out of the air.

BLITZER: Well, what does that mean, to destroy the Libyan military -- is that what you're saying?

KIMMITT: Well, look -- I mean, if we are going after the command nodes, if we're going after the missile nodes, if we're going after tanks on the ground, it is clear that our objectives are more than just simply trying to keep aircraft out of the air. It looks like this is part of a larger air campaign, not dissimilar to what we saw in '99 in Kosovo where the objectives are well beyond just keeping aircraft out of the air.

BLITZER: What I've been told by top U.S. officials -- civilian as well as military -- is the real goal is to develop a wedge between Gadhafi and his own military, to convince his military leaders, the generals, the colonels, the others -- it's over, and save yourselves and break away from Gadhafi.

Is that what you're hearing, as well?

KIMMITT: Well, I think -- let's look at what's really going on here. Yes, in fact, we're trying to separate the warring factions, the rebels on one side and the Libyan military on the other side. But that is to stop the humanitarian situation on the ground.

But it's clear that we want to see Gadhafi gone. We want to see not only the militaries separate, but we also want to see Gadhafi evicted. Whether that's done by us or whether that's done by his own people, the president has been very clear. President Gadhafi -- Colonel Gadhafi has lost the legitimacy of his people and he's looking at very, many different options to make sure that Gadhafi does not stay in power, whether that's done by --

BLITZER: Well, let me ask you a blunt -- let me ask you a blunt question on that specific point. We know that the U.S., the British, the French troops they are going after what they call command and control headquarters for the Libyan military. The commander of the Libyan military is Gadhafi.

Are they trying, in effect, to kill him?

KIMMITT: Well, I think, first, what they're trying to do is isolate Gadhafi from his forces, electronically or through kinetic means, so he's up able to command his forces.

But there's a second message -- and every one of those generals and colonels sitting in those command centers need to know that they're targets, too. So, they have a simple equation that they've got to deal with. Do I want to stick with Gadhafi or do I want to be on the right side of history and perhaps assist the transition within Libya and make it a little more rapid than might otherwise come about than through a simple air campaign?

BLITZER: General Kimmitt, we're being seen around the world, including in Libya right now. And I assume some of the top military officers are watching CNN right now. If you have a chance to say something to these military brass in Libya right now, what would you say to them?

KIMMITT: What I would simply say is -- your leader has lost legitimacy. Your leader is asking you to kill your fellow citizens. That is an illegitimate order. If you continue to follow those orders, you yourself could either be indicted in a war crimes tribunal or could be taken out as a legitimate target in this campaign.

You have a choice. You can either continue with Gadhafi or you can get on the right side of history and move forward to be a part of transitioning to a new Libya. It's your choice and you need to make it quite soon.

BLITZER: How risky is this military operation for the men and women of the United States military?

KIMMITT: Well, first and foremost, it's a tremendous risk to all of the coalition pilots in the air right now. We cannot be assured of air supremacy at this point. I suspect these operations that we've been running for the last few hours have been able to take out much of the air defense and electronic jamming capabilities of the Libyans, probably not all. So, we've got coalition airman that are risking their lives right now for the people of Libya, putting their lives on the line.

More than likely, there will not be a significant number of shoot- downs. If there is a shoot-down, even if the pilots eject, they put themselves at risk then as prisoners of President Gadhafi -- Colonel Gadhafi.

So yes, there's a tremendous risk on an individual basis for those pilots in the air or, as General Clark said earlier, perhaps those special operatives that are on the ground, that are actually guiding some of these laser munitions onto the target.

There's also the third risk. And the third risk is perhaps from a terrorism plan that President Gadhafi, who has had tremendous amount of experience exporting terrorism for his country, could certainly be initiating that plan right now.

So I think there is some level of risk. That's the kind of risk that our soldiers and our coalition allies are used to on a daily basis.

BLITZER: General Kimmitt, stand by. I want you to join us in our continuing coverage. We're just getting in a statement, by the way, from the Libyan military. We'll share that with our viewers.

Much more of the breaking news coverage, including going back to Nic Robertson in Tripoli, Arwa Damon in Benghazi, when we come back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Cruise missiles, jet fighters, the attack against Libyan targets under way as we speak right now. Let's get back to Libya, both sides of Libya. CNN's Nic Robertson is joining us live from Tripoli, where Gadhafi's loyalists are headquartered. Arwa Damon is in Benghazi, where the rebels are headquartered.

Nic, just remind our viewers what happened. What has happened when you are within the past hour?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we heard several loud explosions. And then that was followed by heavy, heavy anti-aircraft gunfire. It sounded as if the gunfire was coming up from where Moammar Gadhafi's palace is, perhaps about a mile or so away from where we're located here.

Then after perhaps a few more minutes of that heavy anti-aircraft gunfire, a couple more loud explosions. The explosions we couldn't tell what they were, but they sounded as if they could have been -- could have been cruise missiles. They were that kind of size, sound and sort of general feel to them.

The anti-aircraft gunfire continued quite heavily for another five minutes or so, then sort of died off sporadically over the next ten minutes.

Wolf, we're now for the first time on Libyan TV, television here -- state television seeing pictures of the casualties. I can talk you through some of what we're hearing them say here, you like, Wolf.

BLITZER: They did put out a statement, the Libyan military. This on Libyan state TV, saying that 48 martyrs, they say, mostly women, children, religious clerics, were killed. They left more than 150 injured. The majority of these attacks, the Libyan military says, were on public areas, hospitals, and schools. They frighten the children and women near those areas that were subject to the aggression.

I assume that's what you're hearing from Libyan officials, that the U.S., the British, the French, they didn't attack military targets; they went after civilian targets. That's the Libyan propaganda. I assume you're getting that?

ROBERTSON: Wolf, we're actually seeing something a little different than that on the state television channel we're watching here. We just watched some military -- looked like generals or commanders at least in military uniform in a hospital going around bed to bed. A couple of the people in the beds had green military uniforms on. A couple were swathed in bandages and have had their clothing stripped away.

But all the people we saw that were wounded in those hospital beds were -- looked like men, and they looked like military aged men, some of them young men. We also saw a picture that was shown of 12 bodies that appeared to be in a morgue wrapped in white shrouds. The television cameras that were accompanying these military commanders interviewing some of the injured, what appeared to be soldiers. They were asking them what happened. One of them was holding up and showing a piece of shrapnel that he said had hit him. Another one was saying nir (ph) -- nir, which is a common expression here, 100 percent, 100 percent meaning 100 percent support for Moammar Gadhafi.

Somebody else was saying that we will be victorious. One of the men in the bed there in the hospital did say where he was and when he was hit. That there were other civilians -- there were civilians around him and that those civilians were hit, as well.

So the images that we're seeing on state television here, the images of the injured that they're broadcasting across the nation here are pictures of men, fighting age males that have been injured, some quite severely, one being ventilated by hand with heavy head injuries, the others appearing to have lighter injuries than that. Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic, stand by. Arwa, stand by, as well. Because we have on the phone right now a woman in Tripoli, an eyewitness to a number of these explosions that have occurred over the past hour or so. We don't want to mention her name for obvious reasons. But tell us what you saw and what you heard.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was asleep when suddenly we heard a huge explosion. And I need to remind you I am somewhere near the main military base in Tripoli. It's called Mitiga (ph). And it's the main air base that we have here in Tripoli.

I tried to run up to the roof and then I saw the second explosion. I saw a huge fire coming up from that place. And there was a lot of noise. And I can hear some shooting. I can't decide whether it's anti-aircraft shooting or gunfire shooting. It was very severe, very heavy.

As I was going downstairs, I heard the third explosion. And what was even much scarier than all this and what's happening is what's happening until now from -- I heard the explosion is a lot of cars trying to march to central Tripoli. And from time to time, we hear them coming out from the windows. And they start shooting guns in civilian neighborhoods.

So I'm assuming that Gadhafi had been sending people to go to central areas and try to prove that he's still in command. This is putting terror in all neighborhoods.

BLITZER: Have you seen any evidence that Gadhafi's military, his political leadership, are putting civilians at some of these sensitive military targets, to use them potentially as human shields?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, but on state TV, he's trying to prove that, for some obvious reasons. He doesn't want his place to be shot. But nobody, as far as I know, has volunteered to go there.

BLITZER: Obviously a dangerous situation right now. Describe to us the difference between 24 hours ago and now, since these air strikes and missile strikes began, the mood in the Libyan capital.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In Tripoli, people are not used to handling such a crisis. Everybody is not aware of what to do in such emergencies. In some areas, where the explosions -- air strikes had been in the borders of Tripoli, people were in a panic. Everybody was running out of their homes because they think it's safer to be out on the streets.

They're afraid that the strikes will be in their buildings, which was -- in a way, it was a catastrophe to see such panic happening in the street and all over Tripoli. People were not -- were simply not prepared for it.

BLITZER: Are they more afraid of Gadhafi and his troops or more afraid of the U.S., the British, the French who are now engaged in military strikes?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, they're afraid of Gadhafi's reaction towards those strikes. Everybody was happy with what the U.S. and what the international community is doing. But they're just afraid and too scared of his reaction.

BLITZER: What do they think he's going to do?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They think he may attack them in their homes. They don't have -- they actually don't have a limit of what he's capable of as a last resort.

BLITZER: How much support do you think he has in Tripoli, which is a big city, as you know?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Tripoli, for the anti-Gadhafi people who are -- almost everybody is against him so far. But they're afraid to come out, because when they did, he attacked them very, very severely. Many people died. Until now, we don't know the actual number that died because he kidnapped them from hospitals. And he tried to have every single body and injured person there is in Tripoli before he allowed any media to come in.

I saw myself him sending Africans and other nationalities cleaning up the street, cleaning every blood stain, everything there is in the street for not to see any proof -- anybody can see any proof of what he's doing to terrorize this community.

BLITZER: Well, you're a very courageous woman for even speaking to us on the phone from Tripoli. Be careful over there. We'll stay in close touch. Good luck to you. Good luck to all the people of Libya.

We're watching what's going on. We're going to check in with Arwa Damon in just a moment. She's in Benghazi, where the rebels are headquartered. A military action in Libya followed by diplomatic efforts in that part of the world.

We'll talk about what's going on with a former U.S. assistant secretary of state, Jamie Rubin. That's coming up, as well. General Kimmitt is still here. Much more of the breaking news coverage right after this. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Within the past hour, the British military has now confirmed new air strikes on Libyan targets. The attacks follow a crisis meeting chaired by the Prime Minister David Cameron at Number 10 Downing Street.

Let's go there. CNN's Atika Shubert is standing by. Not only British cruise missiles were launched, but now jet fighters launched attacks, as well. This confirmed by the British Defense Ministry.

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: that's right. The Ministry of Defense said they launched Stormshadow Missiles from their Tornado GR- 4 Jets. These are jets specifically designed really to attack those sort of ground defenses.

So this is probably part of that same campaign to try and basically attack Libya's air defense capabilities on the ground. So these are the kinds of details we have been seeing coming out tonight.

Now, earlier, Prime Minister David Cameron came out and made a very brief but very strong statement explaining Britain's military involvement, saying it was both necessary and right. Here's what he said.


DAVID CAMERON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Tonight, British forces are in action over Libya. They are part of an international coalition that has come together to enforce the will of the United Nations and to protect the Libyan people.

We have all seen the appalling brutality that Colonel Gadhafi has meted out against his own people. And far from introducing the cease fire he spoke about, he has actually stepped up the attacks and the brutality that we can all see.

So what we are doing is necessary. It is legal. And it is right.


BLITZER: Now, just an interesting fact about those Tornado GR-4 Jets. They flew out of Maron (ph) Base here in England. And it's about 3,000 miles, almost 5,000 kilometers there and back. That would be the longest bombing mission from Britain since the Falkland Conflict in 1982.

BLITZER: Clearly, the British, as we say, are all in this military operation. Atika, thanks very much.

Let's bring back retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt. The French have now launched air strikes from their jet fighters. The British have now done the same thing. The United States has launched Tomahawk cruise missile strikes, but no jet fighters have gone in.

Would you expect that to change any time soon? KIMMITT: At this point, probably not. It appears that we're providing the backup support. We're providing the AWACs. We may be providing some of the jamming.

But it seems very clear that to build this coalition, the president decided to take somewhat of a back seat with regards to this entire operation. Let the coalition forces, such as France and U.K., be out front, potentially Arab League forces such as Qatar and the Emirates be out front.

We'll support. We'll provide the backbone. But I think the vast majority of fighter pilots you're going to be seeing in this initial operation will not be wearing American flags on their left shoulder.

BLITZER: About the Arab participation, which is really critical, I know the Obama administration said they didn't want to do anything unless some of the Arab League countries were involved. The UAE you mentioned, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar. What specific military role do you anticipate they would play?

KIMMITT: Well, I would hope they would play the same role that the Saudi Air Force played in the first Gulf War, which is that they're wing tip to wing tip along with our French and British allies. That are very, very advanced capabilities.

The F-16s that are flown by the Emirates are among the most advanced export variants that we sell. They get a lot of training. They're capable of doing this. It won't be an issue of pilot skill. It will be an issue of political will.

BLITZER: We'll see if they have that political will to participate directly in a military campaign against Libyan targets. General, thanks very much.

Much more of the breaking news coverage coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll take a look at the political and the diplomatic fallout from the creation of this no-fly zone.


BLITZER: The military action in Libya is rooted in diplomacy. Members of the Arab League will eventually play a role, we're told. Of course, it was launched only after the United Nations approved the use of force. Let's take a closer look with Jamie Rubin. He's a former assistant secretary of state, State Department spokesman, joining us from New York.

There's potential for this coalition unraveling maybe even sooner rather than later. What do you think?

JAMIE RUBIN, FMR. ASST SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, the issue is that there is a kind of vagueness to the political, military objectives here. Clearly, the international community was not willing to stand by -- stand idly by and allow Gadhafi to slaughter the -- up to a million people who are living in Benghazi. But beyond that, it seems to me there is very little coherence between the military hardware, the military action taking place and these broad political objectives. Getting rid of Gadhafi is not going to happen by what we're seeing through air power, suppression of air defenses and no-fly zone.

And protecting civilians is a pretty broad mission if you interpret it broadly. I think, in the end, what we've seen is a military commitment on the part of the various governments, European, perhaps Arab, as you say, the United States to really deter and deny Gadhafi the ability to conduct a mass slaughter.

But beyond that, I think the coalition is a little shaky.

BLITZER: Shaky in the sense that do you really expect that the Arab League countries, whether the UAE or Qatar or others, will be involved militarily?

RUBIN: Well, I assume that all of this talk wouldn't have taken place if they're not going to be participating in let's call it patrolling Libyan air space to deter the Gadhafi air forces from flying, to enforce the no-fly zone.

But when it comes to protecting civilians, which is the broad mission President Obama spoke about yesterday, when he spoke to the American people about this mission, and the air to ground attacks that would be involved, that is attacking armor and attacking Gadhafi's forces, that's hard to see them doing at this point.

BLITZER: Jamie Rubin, we'll continue this conversation. Thanks very much.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Our breaking news coverage continues with Don Lemon and John Vause. They're coming up next in "THE CNN NEWSROOM."