Libya: Gaddafi forces 'bomb rebel-held Benghazi'

The BBC's Allan Little says the drive east by Gaddafi's forces is gaining pace

Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi have reportedly launched their first bombing raids on the main rebel-held city of Benghazi.

Explosions were reported on the outskirts of Libya's second city, which has a population of one million.

Reports say the targets included the city's airport at Benina.

A United Nations Security Council meeting in New York to discuss action in Libya will be held later on Thursday.

Western countries want a no-fly zone to halt the advance of government forces.

But the Libyan military has warned that any foreign operations against Libya will expose all maritime and air navigation in the Mediterranean Sea to danger, state TV reports.

"All civilian and military activities will be the target of a Libyan counter-attack. The Mediterranean Sea will be in serious danger not only in the short term but also in the long term," a screen caption said.

Map

Meanwhile, the official Libyan news agency Jana is reporting that Libyan government forces will cease military operations from midnight on Sunday to give rebels the opportunity to hand over their weapons and "benefit from the decision on general amnesty".

Following the toppling of the long-time leaders of neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year, Libyan protesters started to demand that Col Gaddafi step down after 42 years of autocratic rule.

They quickly seized much of eastern Libya, but in recent days pro-Gaddafi forces have retaken several towns.

In the latest developments:

  • Col Gaddafi's forces are reported to have seized positions from around rebel-held town of Ajdabiya, a key objective before launching a ground assault on Benghazi - but rebels deployed tanks, artillery and a helicopter to repel an assault on the town itself
  • Libyan state television reports that the city of Misrata is almost entirely under government control, but rebels and residents in the city have denied this
  • The AFP news agency quotes a rebel spokesman as saying two of the planes attacking Benghazi were shot down

Analysis

This is a decisive moment and key questions are looming.

Can this draft resolution at UN Security Council actually pass? What manner of military action might it authorise?

The Obama administration's apparent late conversion to the idea of military action echoes the hints coming from Paris that a simple no-fly zone may not be enough.

But what if China or Russia uses its veto? Will strong support from Arab governments be enough to justify action by a coalition of the willing?

And what about events on the ground in Libya itself? It is the military situation there that may ultimately determine the nature and scope of any involvement by outside forces.

Reuters quotes an unnamed rebel spokesman in Benghazi as saying: "We have no evidence that any of the strikes caused any damage. It seems to us like a warning, a challenge to the international community."

The Red Cross has announced that it is withdrawing from Benghazi because of the deteriorating security situation in the city.

'All necessary measures'

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the latest draft UN Security Council resolution on Libya called for "all necessary measures short of an occupation force" to protect civilians under threat of attack.

"The resolution that is under discussion today includes demands for an immediate ceasefire, a complete end to violence, a ban on all flights in Libyan air space with the exception of humanitarian flights," he told MPs.

US Undersecretary of State William Burns said the administration supported international measures in Libya "short of boots on the ground".

He also told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that a no-fly zone over Libya could have "an important, positive, practical" effect, but it was still necessary to consider other measures.

France is close to the UK-US position, but the Russians and the Chinese - the other two veto-wielding members of the Security Council - have traditionally been opposed to resolutions that could provide a justification for the use of force against a sovereign country.

Moscow and Beijing oppose such external intervention in the internal affairs of another country, believing it sets a dangerous precedent.

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