Thrust into Benghazi attempt to blunt allies' air power

The sudden storming of Benghazi by pro-Gaddafi forces was a military ploy designed to negate the potency of international air strikes.

Analysts said moving his ground forces from the flat, exposed terrain of the desert to the west of Libya's second city and into its streets not only provided Muammar Gaddafi's troops with vital cover, but increased the risk of coalition air strikes inflicting civilian casualties.

Experts warned that the consequences of collateral damage would create a significant propaganda coup for the Libyan leader, while potentially damaging the conviction of the international coalition.

Hundreds of cars packed with people were reported to be fleeing the city in the hours before confirmation arrived that French Rafale fighter jets had flown into Libyan airspace and destroyed a number of military vehicles at Benghazi.

Unconfirmed reports indicated that French jets were supported by British ground attack aircraft.

Analysts said Gaddafi's "devious move" to announce and then break a ceasefire had been compounded by the decision to invade Benghazi. Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow of independent thinktank the Royal United Services Institute, said the tactic of entering the city of 670,000 had potentially "blunted" the airpower stacked against Gaddafi's forces.

While British Tornado and Typhoon fighters could easily eradicate troops and tanks assembled on the desert outside Benghazi, the mission became more complex with his forces in the city.

Joshi said: "It makes airpower considerably less effective. Given that some of Gaddafi's most pernicious weapons - ground-based artillery and tanks - are now intermingled with the urban infrastructure and civilian targets like schools and hospitals, it does blunt one of the international coalition's greatest strengths, which is advanced fast jets with precision targeted weaponry."

Reports from Benghazi were unclear. The city went quiet and one report said the troops had withdrawn and were 50km from the city.

Another concern is avoiding hitting British special forces units, likely to be operating in the city to help "light up" targets and offer ground-level intelligence on both the location of Gaddafi's forces and also where civilians are sheltering.

Paul Smyth, a former wing commander with the RAF, Tornado navigator and founder of defence analysts R3I Consulting, said it was technically possible to hit targets in built-up areas from a Tornado, although there were obvious challenges hitting a tank behind a building while moving at 965km/h. Smyth said the greatest danger was "collateral damage".

However, he said the continued expansion eastwards of pro-Gaddafi troops had presented international forces with a golden opportunity to deliver a crushing blow against the Libyan leader.

His forces' supply lines are becoming increasingly stretched as the frontline moves further from Tripoli.

"Gaddafi's forces have travelled a long distance and require long lines of supply and communication. Whether they have the means required to sustain combat is open to question," he said.

The longer the fighting in Benghazi rages, the greater the need for fresh ammunition or tank transporters to replenish Gaddafi's army. Any supply convoy, easily spotted by surveillance aircraft, presents an elementary target for the fighter jets above Libya.

Smyth added that even if Gaddafi's troops had made substantial progress in recapturing Benghazi, the rebels' determination to hold their positions would have been boosted by the arrival of the international force.

In terms of the weaponry the Libyan leader could use against jets, experts cite Gaddafi's mobile surface-to-air missile systems as a potential problem. They could be hard to track, although high-altitude surveillance aircraft provide a continuously updated and detailed map showing the latest movements of Gaddafi's military assets.

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