Arab League backs Libya no-fly zone

Fighter at Ras Lanuf looks for aircraft, 8 March 2011 Rebel fighters have tried to fight off warplanes with whatever weapons they have

The Arab League has backed the idea of a no-fly zone over Libya, as rebels continue to be pushed back by Colonel Gaddafi's forces.

A special meeting in Cairo voted to ask the UN Security Council to impose the policy until the current crisis ended.

The UK and France have pushed for the idea, but have failed so far to win firm backing from the EU or Nato.

Libyan rebel forces have meanwhile suffered fresh setbacks including the loss of the key oil port of Ras Lanuf.

Reports suggested that the rebel front line had been pushed back even further back, towards the town of Ujala.

The Arab League vote for a no-fly zone was opposed only by Syria and Algeria, reports from the Cairo meeting said.

Nato has previously cited regional support for the idea as a key condition before it could possibly go ahead.

The US welcomed the Arab League's call, saying it strengthened the international pressure on Col Gaddafi and support for the Libyan people.

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The US Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, had earlier been quoted by French news agency AFP as saying it was still not clear whether it was the right policy.

"We can do it - the question is whether it's a wise thing to do and that's the discussion that's going on at a political level," Mr Gates reportedly told reporters on a US military plane after a visit to Bahrain.

Russia, which wields a veto on the UN Security Council, has expressed serious reservations on the issue.

On Friday, EU leaders in Brussels also stopped short of supporting the British and French initiative, saying instead that they would "examine all necessary options" to protect civilians.

The policy would be aimed at preventing Col Gaddafi's forces using warplanes to attack rebel positions, although no clear position has emerged on exactly how this would be achieved.

On the ground in Libya, rebels have continued to lose ground to the superior firepower of Col Gaddafi's forces.

A major new attack was reported near Misrata, thought to be the only significant rebel-held town left in western Libya.

Pascale Harter reports from Benghazi on the scale of protest

The BBC's Jon Leyne in Benghazi says there are fears the battle for Misrata could be even nastier than the one for Zawiya, which finally fell on Friday after days of fierce fighting.

Misrata is a much bigger city than Zawiya, with a population of some 300,000 people, and one rebel leader has already said he fears a massacre, our correspondent says.

In eastern Libya, fresh strikes near Ujala and Brega were reported by Reuters on Saturday, suggesting that pro-Gaddafi forces were pushing the front line ever further east.

The pan-Arab broadcaster al-Jazeera said one of its cameramen had been killed in an ambush near Benghazi - the main rebel-held city.

In Benghazi itself the mood in the city remains defiant, says the BBC's Pascale Harter: many wounded fighters are returning but other residents are heading for the front line.

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