Gadhafi's forces attack rebels in Benghazi in defiance of U.N. resolution

Benghazi, Libya - French President Nicolas Sarkozy said allied air forces had gone into action on Saturday over Libya and were preventing Moammar Gadhafi's from forces attacking the rebel city of Benghazi.

"Our planes are already preventing air attacks on the city," Sarkozy said adding that military action supported by France, Britain, the United States and Canada and backed by Arab nations could be halted if Gadhafi stopped his forces attacking.

French fighter jets, flying reconnaissance missions across the north African nation, entered Libyan airspace to ensure that Gadhafi's forces would not take any action there. Sarkozy said "our determination is total."

On the ground, Gadhafi's forces had pushed into Benghazi, defying world demands for an immediate cease-fire and forcing rebels to retreat.

As fighting raged, a warplane was shot down over Benghazi and Sky News correspondent Emma Hurd - who was in Benghazi but joined a growing exodus fleeing to the east - said there were cheers from the rebels when it crashed following the sound of anti-aircraft fire.

NBC News' Jim Maceda told the TODAY show that it later became clear the jet was one of those captured by the rebels. He said it was not clear if it was shot down by Gadhafi's forces, rebels on the ground by mistake or simply had suffered a mechanical failure.

Meantime, hundreds of cars full of civilians headed out of Benghazi, a Reuters correspondent said.

"Do we have to wait till he (Gadhafi) kills us all before the (world) acts. We are very disappointed," said Adel Mansoura, an air traffic controller fleeing with his family.

"When we heard the U.N. resolution, we were very happy and thought we had our freedom but now we have been left on our own to the killers," he said at a petrol station where dozens of other cars lined for fuel as they fled.

The head of the rebel National Libyan Council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, said the international community must act swiftly to protect civilians from Gadhafi's forces.

"Now there is a bombardment by artillery and rockets on all districts of Benghazi," he told Al Jazeera television. "The international community is late in intervening to save civilians from Gadhafi's forces."

"Today in Benghazi there will be a catastrophe if the international community does not implement the resolutions of the U.N. Security Council," he said. "We appeal to the international community, to the all the free world, to stop this tyranny from exterminating civilians."

Government blames rebels

Al-Jazeera reported the Libyan government said in a statement that its forces were defending themselves.

"The gangs of al-Qaida attacked the units of the Libyan armed forces stationed to the west of Benghazi," the statement said, according to the official Jana news agency.

The statement also said the rebels had used "a helicopter and a fighter jet to bomb the Libyan armed forces in blatant violation of the no-fly zone imposed by the UN Security Council."

Gadhafi also said Saturday the U.N. resolution authorizing international military intervention in Libya was "invalid."

He said he had sent a message to President Barack Obama defending his decision to attack rebel cities: "If you found them taking over American cities by the force of arms, tell me what you would do."

Gadhafi also sent a letter to the French and British leaders and the U.N. secretary general, saying they would "regret" any intervention. "Libya is not for you, Libya is for the Libyans," he said.

Libya had declared a unilateral cease-fire on Friday after the U.N. Security Council authorized a no-fly zone over Libya.

But the United States accused Gadhafi of defying international demands for an immediate cease-fire, and France's U.N. envoy predicted military action within hours of the Paris meeting on Libya on Saturday.

Libyan rebels said they were being forced back by Gadhafi's forces. Black plumes of smoke could be seen on the road to the west of the city, a Reuters witness said.

"We have no hope in the Western forces," said Khalid Ahmed, a rebel fighter, as around him rebel forces pulled back from the advancing front line.

Elsewhere in the city, rebels reported skirmishes and strikes by Gadhafi forces.

"Fighter jets bombed the road to the airport and there's been an air strike on the Abu Hadi district on the outskirts," Mohammed Dwo, a hospital worker and a rebel supporter, told Reuters.

He was speaking at the aftermath of an apparent firefight between rebels and men they claimed were two mercenaries who had infiltrated the city and had been driving a car which they said contained a crate of hand grenades.

The two men, in civilian clothes, had been shot dead and rebels produced blood-soaked identity papers they said showed them to be of Nigerian nationality.

"We were sitting here and we received gunfire from this vehicle then we opened fire and after that it crashed," rebel fighter Meri Dersi said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.