* Aircraft carrier set sail at 1200 GMT
* Warplanes operating over Libya
(Updates with aircraft carrier departing)
By Elizabeth Pineau and John Irish
PARIS, March 20 (Reuters) - France sent an aircraft carrier towards Libya on Sunday and its warplanes carried out further operations over the north African country, armed forces and defence officials said.
The Charles de Gaulle carrier, the flagship of the French fleet, left the southern port of Toulon at around 1200 GMT, carrying around 1,800 crew members and some 20 aircraft.
The carrier was accompanied by an attack submarine, several frigates and a refuelling ship, defence officials said. [ID:nLDE72I0I2]
“The French operations continue,” said a source at armed forces headquarters. “French planes are in place (over Libya).”
President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government, alongside Britain, was at the forefront of a campaign to win U.N. backing for a no-fly zone over Libya and to build an international coalition for military strikes to enforce it. [ID:nLDE72I07Y]
French planes fired the first shots on Saturday in the campaign to force Muammar Gaddafi’s troops to cease fire and end attacks on civilians. [ID:nLDE72J009]
France’s leadership in the diplomatic and military arenas appeared to have rallied public opinion behind President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose approval ratings have been languishing near record lows ahead of presidential elections early next year.
Elections for local councillors this Sunday and next will provide the last litmus test before the 2012 vote [ID:nLDE72F0ID].
Even former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, one of Sarkozy’s bitterest political critics, applauded the government’s role.
“France has, in these circumstances, been true to its ideals,” he told the Journal du Dimanche newspapers.
Some cautioned, however, that the attacks could bring repercussions in terms of domestic security.
“We’re preparing for all eventualities,” Britain’s ambassador in Paris, Peter Westmacott, told Europe 1 radio. “He (Gaddafi) has been involved in a lot of terrorist activities in the past. We can’t rule anything out.” (Writing by Daniel Flynn; editing by Mike Peacock)