TRIPOLI (REUTERS)—Western forces pounded Libya's air defenses and patrolled its skies on Sunday, but their day-old intervention hit a serious diplomatic setback as the Arab League chief condemned the "bombardment of civilians."
As European and U.S. forces unleashed warplanes and cruise missiles against Muammar Gaddafi's air defenses and armor, the Libyan leader said the air strikes amounted to terrorism and vowed to fight to the death.
Sixty-four people were killed in the Western bombardment overnight, a Libyan government health official said, but it was impossible to verify the report as government minders refused to take reporters in Tripoli to the sites of the bombings.
Arab League chief Amr Moussa called for an emergency meeting of the group of 22 states to discuss Libya. He requested a report into the bombardment which he said had "led to the deaths and injuries of many Libyan civilians."
"What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians," Egypt's official state news agency quoted Moussa as saying.
Arab backing for a no-fly zone provided crucial underpinning for the passage of the U.N. Security Council resolution last week that paved the way for Western action to stop Gaddafi killing civilians as he fights an uprising against his rule.
The intervention is the biggest against an Arab country since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Withdrawal of Arab support would make it much harder to pursue what some defense analysts say could in any case be a difficult, open-ended campaign with an uncertain outcome.
A senior U.S. official rebuffed Moussa's comments.
"The resolution endorsed by Arabs and UNSC (the United Nations Security Council) included 'all necessary measures' to protect civilians, which we made very clear includes, but goes beyond, a no-fly zone," the official told Reuters during a visit by President Barack Obama to Rio de Janeiro.
The U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said the no-fly zone was effectively in place. But he told CBS the endgame of military action was "very uncertain" and acknowledged it could end in a stalemate with Gaddafi.
Mullen said he had seen no reports of civilian casualties from the Western strikes. But Russia said there had been such casualties and called on Britain, France and the United States to halt the "non-selective use of force."
Western intervention, after weeks of diplomatic wrangling, was welcomed with a mix of apprehension and relief in Benghazi where the main hospital was filled with men, women and children wounded in Saturday's assault on the city by Gaddafi's forces.
"We salute France, Britain, the United States and the Arab countries for standing with Libya. But we think Gaddafi will take out his anger on civilians. So the West has to hit him hard," said civil servant Khalid al-Ghurfaly, 38.
Outside the eastern city, the advance by Gaddafi's troops was stopped in its tracks with smoldering, shattered tanks and troop carriers littering the main road. The charred bodies of at least 14 government soldiers lay scattered in the desert.
"Gaddafi is like a chicken and the coalition is plucking his feathers so he can't fly. The revolutionaries will slit his neck," said Fathi Bin Saud, a 52-year-old rebel carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, surveying the devastation.
Insurgents, fighting a month-old uprising to end Gaddafi's 41 years in power, advanced south from Benghazi toward the strategic junction at Ajdabiyah which they lost last week.
But in Misrata, east of Tripoli, residents said government tanks and snipers had entered the center of the city after a base outside it had been hit by Western air strikes. "Two people were killed so far today by snipers. They (snipers) are still on the rooftops. They are backed with four tanks, which have been patrolling the town. It's getting very difficult for people to come out," one Misrata resident, called Sami, told Reuters by telephone.