A military intervention against Col Muammar Gaddafi’s onslaught on Libyan rebels has been proposed at the UN in an eleventh-hour attempt to stop the dictator crushing opposition strongholds.
European diplomatic sources said that military operations could be under way “within hours” of the UN vote, using Nato and British airborne forces already in the region.
Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, said a wide-range of options were being considered short of direct boots on the ground, including a no-fly zone, the deployment of drones and arming the rebels.
A UN Security Council resolution drafted by Britain, France and the United States proposed to use “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians, language that would clear the way for air attacks on any of Col Gaddafi’s forces moving against non-military targets.
The resolution had the strong support of Lebanon and some other Arab nations, but as negotiations at the UN headquarters in New York extended into the evening, the positions of other key players was unresolved.
Supporters of the resolution hope that China and Russia would merely abstain rather than use their power of veto held as permanent members of the Security Council.
In an indication of divisions within Nato, Guido Westerwelle, the foreign minister of Germany, has said that “we have no wish to and we cannot take sides in a north African civil war”.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Nato Secretary General, favouring action, said that “time is running out”.
Col Gaddafi vowed to retake the rebel capital of Benghazi and the rest of the opposition-held east of Libya, offering amnesty to those who surrender but “no mercy” for those who don’t.
In an address Thursday evening on state TV, Gaddafi says his forces will begin the assault on Benghazi, proclaiming “the matter has been decided … we are coming.”
He says there would be amnesty for those “who throw their weapons away,” but for those who resist “there will be no mercy or compassion.”
He had earlier appeared to buckle under the sudden push for intervention as his commanders announced a ceasefire on Sunday.
His defence ministry however issued a verbal retaliation, warning that it could target military and civilian air and sea traffic in the Mediterranean in case of a foreign military intervention.
The resolution circulated to UN Security Council demanded an immediate ceasefire and an end to all flights except humanitarian shipments.
Barack Obama’s administration has only belatedly supported the no-fly zone, taking several days to react after the Arab League came out in favour last weekend. Mrs Clinton however insisted on Arab involvement in enforcement and said that assisting the rebels was now crucial.
“A no-fly zone requires certain actions taken to protect the planes and the pilots, including bombing targets like the Libyan defence systems,” she said.
William Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, warned that leaving Col Gaddafi in power could see Libya return to sponsoring international terrorism.
Despite the change in tone from the State Department, the Pentagon signalled its hostility to bombing Libya.
A spokesman for Robert Gates, the Defence Secretary, said he remained a sceptic. “It would be logical if one of his concerns about a no-fly zone is the element of attacking Libyan air defences, then an option of air strikes would be pretty similar,” said Col David Lapan.
The shift by the US towards a position demanded by David Cameron was welcomed in Whitehall, where the National Security Council met to discuss British contributions to attacks on Col Gaddafi’s loyalists.
William Hague, the foreign secretary, told the House of Commons that bolder UN action was necessary in addition to last month’s sanctions and threats of prosecution for war crimes on Libyan leaders.
While a Libya no-fly zone can also build on Nato Operation Active Endeavour, counter-terrorism maritime forces based in the Mediterranean, military action will burden the Alliance which has 140,000 troops committed in Afghanistan.
On the ground, forces loyal to Col Gaddafi moved within striking distance of rebel stronghold Benghazi last night with reports of air strikes as well as bombardments of three other rebel holdouts.
Indications last night suggested there will be a last ditch defence of Benghazi that should make it harder to conquer than the relatively exposed towns retaken in recent fighting.
Rebel commanders claimed to have used weapons capabilities that had been kept hidden, including helicopters, tanks and artillery.
Commanders claimed three fighter jets were in its hands, ready to take off against Gaddafi’s forces.
The advance on Benghazi appeared to have encountered difficulties after two air force fighter bombers were reported to have been shot down.
Government planes bombed Benina airport, just six miles south of Benghazi, which could be used by the rebels as an airbase.
The Libyan army however held back from a move to encircle the town, perhaps fearing rebel backlash.
“The Gaddafi forces tried to carry out an air raid on the city but our anti-aircraft defences repulsed the offensive and two planes were shot down,” an opposition spokesman said.
There was claim and counter claim last night over the fate of Misurata, an outpost of opposition control 125 miles from Tripoli. Regime shelling from two sides was reported by residents but state television’s claims that the town had fallen were rejected by locals.
Arab television reported that 30 people had been killed in Ajdabiyah, as fighting continued in the town on the coast road to Benghazi. But state TV said the town had be wrested back from the control of al Qaeda.
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