Libya: UN 'to back action against Gaddafi'

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

The UN Security Council is set to back a resolution that supports military action in Libya but stops short of an invasion, diplomats say.

A draft before the 15-member body in New York backs action "to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack".

It also proposes a no-fly zone to help halt the advance of Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi's forces.

Reports suggest air strikes may begin within hours of it passing.

The US, UK and France have proposed the council resolution, backing action short of an invasion.

Diplomatic sources say Russia and China - which often oppose the use of force against a sovereign country as they believe it sets a dangerous precedent - will abstain rather than using their power of veto.

Analysis

The United Nations seems on the brink of taking a momentous decision.

After hanging back for days, the Americans have now not only backed the British and French resolution on Libya but beefed it up.

The fact that French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe will be here in person is a sign of his confidence that the Russians and Chinese won't block it.

Some reports quote the French saying that there could be an attack within hours of a vote passing. It is likely five Arab air forces will take part.

Although there have been other recent UN operations, this would be the most serious intervention in a crisis for a long time, a marked contrast to the division over Iraq.

That does not ease the worries of some in the administration that this will still be labelled an American war and they will be dragged deeper and deeper into the affairs of another Arab nation.

They suggest that if the resolution is passed, air attacks on Col Gaddafi's forces by the British and French air forces could begin within hours. It is not thought that the US would be involved in the first strikes, but the British and French are likely to get logistical backup from Arab allies.

Col Gaddafi's forces have recently retaken several towns seized by rebels during an uprising.

Earlier on Thursday, addressing the people of Benghazi, the rebels' main stronghold, Col Gaddafi said his troops were coming "tonight" and there would be "no mercy".

He told rebels to go home, adding that "whoever lays down his weapons" would be pardoned.

Rebel leaders replied by saying their forces would stand firm and not be deterred by Col Gaddafi's threats.

'Boots on the ground'

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

Map

He told the US 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.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told MPs the resolution "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".

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.

In other developments:

  • Forces loyal to Col Gaddafi reportedly launched their first air attacks on Benghazi, targeting the airport at Benina
  • Col Gaddafi's forces attacked the 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 the assault
  • Libyan state television reported that the city of Misrata was almost entirely under government control, but rebels and residents in the city denied this
  • Official Libyan news agency Jana reported that government forces would 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.

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