PARIS, March 19 (UPI) -- U.S. and British forces Saturday began enforcing the Libya no-fly zone, hitting air defense sites and radar in northern and western Libya with cruise missiles.
Voice of America reported Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi sent messages to world leaders Saturday, contending his government forces are fighting al-Qaida and calling the United Nations resolution on Libya invalid.
Government spokesman Ibrahim Moussa told reporters Gadhafi wrote that the Libyan people support him and he is ready to die for them, VOA said.
The BBC reported Gadhafi said in a speech carried on Libyan TV that the country was under attack by outside forces.
"This is a colonialist and crusading aggression," Gadhafi said. "Now we shall arm all the masses ... ."
In Paris, President Nicolas Sarkozy said French warplanes struck Libyan military vehicles on the ground.
At a Pentagon briefing Saturday afternoon, Navy Vice Adm. William Gortney said more than 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles had been launched by U.S. and British ships and submarines targeting over 20 long-range, anti-aircraft missile, air warning radar and command-and-control defense systems and other strategic sites near Tripoli and Misrata.
"This an international military effort," Gortney said, adding the United States did not have manned aircraft over Libya at this time. He said no U.S. forces were on the ground.
"Bomb damage assessments will take a little bit," he said. "We're in the first phase of a multi-phase operation."
Forces from France, the U.K., Italy, Canada and other allies are participating in the coalition action dubbed "Operation Odyssey Dawn," he said.
In Brasilia, Brazil, U.S. President Barack Obama, on the first day of a five-day Latin American trip, said he was "deeply aware of the risks of any military action, no matter what limits we place on it.
"I want the American people to know that the use of force is not our first choice and is not a choice that I make lightly," Obama said. "But we cannot stay idly by while when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy and his forces step up their assaults on cities like Benghazi and Misrata, 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."
In London, Prime Minister David Cameron announced British forces were active in Libya calling the intervention "necessary, legal and right."
The French defense minister said a French fighter fired at a Libyan military vehicle hours after Western and Arab League leaders met in Paris, the BBC reported. The U.S. and Britain began firing cruise missiles a short while later.
"Our air force will oppose any aggression on the population of Benghazi," Sarkozy said in Paris.
"Right now our planes are blocking airstrikes on" Benghazi. "French planes are ready to act against armored vehicles that would be threatening unarmed civilians."
Despite the Gadhafi regime's claimed cease-fire, witnesses in Benghazi told The New York Times of artillery bombardments and government forces in the rebel-held city.
The United Nations Security Council resolution passed Thursday authorized military action to protect civilians, but Western officials in Paris told the Times they were interpreting it to include protection of the beleaguered armed rebels.
Meanwhile, Gadhafi defied the no-fly zone and warned it could destabilize the region.
Gadhafi's government issued what it called an open letter to President Obama, the United Nations and European leaders telling them not to interfere in Libyan internal affairs and warning there would be consequences if they did.
"This is injustice, it is clear aggression, and it is uncalculated risk for its consequences on the Mediterranean and Europe," the statement said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Paris Saturday for consultations with European allies and the Arab League, said the U.S. would reinforce the no-fly zone but that no U.S. ground troops would be deployed in Libya, the BBC said.
"Moammar Gadhafi and those executing his orders must immediately end the acts of violence carried out against civilians, to withdraw from all areas they have entered by force, return to their compounds, and allow full humanitarian access," the European and Arab leaders said in statement.
Witnesses say a fighter jet downed near Benghazi Saturday morning shows the government's declaration of a cease-fire was either a sham or a ploy meant to buy time. It was not clear whether French or other allied air forces shot it down.
VOA said forces loyal to Gadhafi downed a warplane belonging to rebel forces was shot down over Benghazi. The pilot reportedly ejected safely.