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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to media as Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon look on at the Canadian Embassy in Paris, Saturday March 19, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to media as Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon look on at the Canadian Embassy in Paris, Saturday March 19, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Risks inherent in helping protect Libyans, Harper says Add to ...

Canada is at war to protect innocent Libyan civilians, and there are no guarantees that they - or Canadian military personnel - can avoid getting hurt, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Saturday.

Mr. Harper offered that frank assessment of the road ahead in the ravaged North African country, as Canada and its allies endorsed immediate international military action to stop Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi from attacking civilians and rebel forces in his country.

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Defence Minister Peter MacKay says the pilots of six Canadian fighter-bombers dispatched to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya are prepared to engage the Libyan air force.

Mr. MacKay said the pilots and aircrew - a total of 140 military personnel - are well equipped and well trained, but the mission "isn't without risk."

MacKay, in Halifax to make a funding announcement, said

Mr. Harper's comments came hours before the U.S. and Britain launched what President Obama described as "limited military" action against Libya.

The Pentagon said American and British warships fired 110 cruise missiles at 20 targets in Libya late Saturday. Earlier French warplanes were in action against Mr. Ghadafi's forces. Canada's small military contribution in the region did not take part in the initial strikes, according to Canadian military officials.

"We should not kid ourselves. Whenever we engage in military action - essentially acts of war - these are difficult situations," Mr. Harper said at the end of an emergency summit, hastily convened in Paris to deal with the crisis.

"And we will have to monitor this very closely and be very careful what we do every step of the way."

Mr. Harper agreed that the no-fly zone that Canada, France, Britain and others have agreed to enforce over Libyan skies is a complicated affair that could involve loss of innocent lives. Enforcing a no-fly zone could involve attacking Gadhafi air defence forces, among other things.

Minimizing civilian casualties was a serious topic of discussion among his fellow leaders, Mr. Harper said.

"These campaigns are complicated and one cannot promise perfection. One cannot promise there will not be casualties on our side either. But obviously all precautions will be taken to minimize our own casualties and minimize those of innocent civilians."

Mr. Harper said Canada would not be drawn into a ground war if Mr. Gadhafi digs in his heels. But he was also moving to dispel the perception that targeted high-altitude bombing is a safe exercise.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who hosted leaders from across the globe to finalize how allies would respond to the end of a brief ceasefire, said planes from his country were already flying reconnaissance missions over Libya.

"If there is not an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of the forces that have been attacking civilian populations in the last few weeks, our countries will have recourse to military means," a solemn Mr. Sarkozy said.

"This warning was endorsed by all participants of the summit that has just concluded."

Mr. Harper arrived in Paris early Saturday morning from Ottawa. He was accompanied by Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon and Gen. Walt Natynczyk, the chief of the defence staff, for the one-day meeting.

Mr. Sarkozy greeted Harper at Elysee Palace, where the two men had a bilateral meeting ahead of the broader talks. Mr. Harper also had a one on one meeting with David Cameron, the British prime minister.

Mr. Harper echoed fellow leaders' concern of being drawn into an Iraq-style quagmire when he said it was up to the Libyan people to decide their own future.

But he also endorsed regime change, by giving rebel forces the power to drive Mr. Gadhafi from power.

"He simply will not last very long. I think that is the basis on which we're moving forward. If I am being frank here, that is probably more understood than spoken aloud. But I just said it aloud," Mr. Harper said.

Canada has committed six CF-18 fighter jets to help enforce the no-fly zone over Libya. They will be part of an international effort to back the United Nations Security Council resolution that is trying to prevent violence by forces loyal to Mr. Gadhafi against rebels and civilians.

"There will be extensive aerial operations coming very soon. Canada will be part of all of those aerial operations, and we will be working under international command in terms of exactly when we will go out or return," Mr. Harper said.

His spokesman Andrew MacDougall said Canadian fighter jets had reached the region and would require two days to prepare for any missions.

Mr. Harper said the frigate, the HMCS Charlottetown, would take part in the naval blockade.

The ship, with 240 sailors aboard, is patrolling the waters north of the Libyan coast as part of Operation MOBILE.

Mr. Sarkozy stressed that the Libyans controlled their future, and that the world did not seek to impose an outcome. He said the international community was intervening under a UN mandate, particularly with Arab partners

"The future of Libya belongs to the Libyans," Mr. Sarkozy said. "We do not seek to decide for them."

It was an apparent response to a defiant statement by Mr. Gadhafi earlier Saturday.

"Libya is not yours," Mr. Gadhafi had said. "Libya is for the Libyans. The Security Council resolution is invalid."

"You will regret it if you dare to intervene in our country," Mr. Gadhafi warned in letters sent to Mr. Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. A Libyan government spokesman read the letters at a news conference in Tripoli.

Mr. Gadhafi had declared a ceasefire Friday, but his forces moved Saturday to crush the five-week-old rebellion against him, firing rockets and launching air strikes on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

A warplane was shot down over the city Saturday morning. Videos show a flaming aircraft plunging to the ground and exploding on impact.

The French and British leaders have been the strongest proponents of a no-fly zone. U.S. President Barack Obama, who is not attending the Paris talks, has ruled out ground troops, but has said American air and naval forces in the region would take part in military action.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, leaders from the Arab world, Africa and other countries were in Paris to discuss the Libya situation.

Mr. Gadhafi said he has sent a message to 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 said in his message.

Libya denied violating the ceasefire, blaming the rebels for doing so. Saturday's developments raised the possibility of swift action to implement the no-fly zone.

"The ceasefire was a lie, an obvious lie from the beginning," Mr. Harper said.

- With files from The Associated Press

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