The UN Security Council has authorised air strikes to halt Muammar Gaddafi’s offensive against embattled rebel forces in Libya, with the first bombing raids possible within hours.
The Council today voted to permit “all necessary measures” to impose a no-fly zone, protect civilian areas and impose a ceasefire on Gaddafi’s military. Enforcement will rely on air power as the resolution rules out sending ground troops.
After the vote, US President Barack Obama today discussed the resolution with UK Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
“The leaders agreed that Libya must immediately comply with all terms of the resolution and that violence against the civilian population of Libya must cease,” the White House said in a statement.
“The leaders agreed to coordinate closely on next steps, and to continue working with Arab and other international partners to ensure the enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions on Libya.”
The European Union also welcomed the resolution and said it was “ready to implement” it.
In Rome, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi met Defence officials to discuss the UN decision, ANSA news agency said.
And in Canada, broadcaster CTV reported that the Canadian government would send six fighter jets to help enforce the no-fly zone. The Canadians would fly alongside Americans, British and French aircraft and those from other countries, the report said.
Germany, which abstained from voting, said no German troops would take part in any military intervention in Libya, citing “considerable risks and dangers”.
“We remain eminently skeptical on the option of military intervention … anticipated in this resolution,” Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement.
Diplomats have indicated air strikes could be imminent, and the Pentagon was already fine-tuning military options for “serious” strikes against ground and air targets, according to US Defence officials cited by The Wall Street Journal.
They said options included using cruise missiles to take out fixed Libyan military sites and air-defense systems. Manned and unmanned aircraft could also be used against Ghadafi’s tanks, personnel carriers and infantry positions, with sorties being flown out of US and NATO bases in the southern Mediterranean.
“There is significant, serious planning going on right now,” a US official said. The options would be “more aggressive than a show of force.”
Officials said the goal of international military action would be to protect civilians in Benghazi, push the government’s forces back, and sow enough confusion and disorder within Libyan military ranks that officers would turn against the longtime dictator.
“The US doesn’t want a war,” an Obama administration official said. “But we want to prevent a slaughter.”
Qatar and the United Arab Emirates could be among the Arab nations to join any coalition that takes action against Gaddafi’s regime, the Arab League’s UN representative said.
Following the UN vote, Dr Khalid Kaim, Libya’s Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs, appeared before the media in Tripoli to thank the five countries that abstained.
Kaim said the resolution threatened the unity of Libya and said any country that armed rebel forces was inviting Libyans to kill one other.
In an apparent change of strategy, Gaddafi’s son Saif told a CNN correspondent that there were no plans for a full-blown assault on the city.
Saif Gaddafi allegedly said soldiers would be stationed around Benghazi to help residents evacuate, and that police officers would then enter the city to hunt for terrorists.
Celebratory gunfire immediately rang out across Libya’s main rebel-held city of Benghazi. Tracer bullets streaked across the night sky as preachers at mosques shouted “God is greatest!” over loudspeakers.
“This resolution demands an immediate ceasefire and a complete end to violence and attacks against civilians,” the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said.
“The security council has authorized the use of force, including enforcement of a no-fly zone to protect civilians and civilian areas targeted by Colonel Gaddafi, his intelligence and security forces and his mercenaries,” Ms Rice said.
Gaddafi vowed earlier that his troops would take Benghazi within hours.
“The decision has been taken. Prepare yourselves. We will arrive tonight,” Gaddafi said on state television. “Show them no mercy. The world needs to see Benghazi free.”
His Defence Ministry, meanwhile, warned that foreign assaults on Libya would trigger retaliation putting “all air and maritime traffic in the Mediterranean” in danger.
The UN vote passed 10-0 with five abstentions in the 15 member Council. Permanent members China and Russia were among those abstaining, but did not use their veto power. Germany also abstained.
Diplomats have indicated that air strikes from a coalition led by Britain, France and the United States – but also including some Arab countries – could now be imminent.
“We have very little time left. It is a matter of days. Perhaps it is a matter of hours,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said at the United Nations. “We should not arrive too late.”
Mr Juppe said the world had to act to support Libya, following peaceful revolts against authoritarian leaders across the Arab world.
“The world is living one of its great revolutions that changes the course of history,” he said. “In Libya, alas, for a number of weeks the people’s will has been shot down to its feet by Colonel Gaddafi.”
A UN diplomat who asked not to be identified said that Qatar and United Arab Emirates could be among the Arab nations to join a military coalition.
However, countries abstaining in the UN vote warned of an open-ended conflict that could undermine stability across the oil-rich region.
“There is a need to avoid such destabilizing developments,” the Russian ambassador said, calling the resolution “most unfortunate.”
Germany’s ambassador foresaw “great risks. The likelihood of large-scale loss of lie should not be underestimated. If the steps proposed turn out to be ineffective, we see the danger of being drawn into a protracted military conflict that would affect the wider region.”
The UN vote set the stage for a dramatic widening of the war between Gaddafi and rag-tag rebel forces seeking the veteran strongman’s overthrow.
The Libyan Defence Ministry warned that “any military operation against Libya will expose all air and maritime traffic in the Mediterranean to danger.”
“Any civilian or military moving traffic will be the target of a Libyan counter-offensive,” the official Jana news agency quoted the Defense Ministry spokesman as saying.
On the ground around Benghazi tensions mounted with rebel commanders ordering fighters to man artillery and missile batteries against the expected onslaught by government forces.
However, CNN reported that one of Gaddafi’s sons, Saif al-Islam, had announced a change in tactics following the UN vote.
“He said they’re going to change the tactics around Benghazi, that the army is not going to go into Benghazi. It’s going to take up positions around the stronghold,” the CNN correspondent.
Amid conflicting claims, state television said loyalists were on the outskirts of Benghazi.
Allibya television said “the town of Zuwaytinah is under control (of loyalists) and armed forces are on the outskirts of Benghazi.”
But a rebel spokesman told AFP by telephone: “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.”
Libyan television also said loyalists had overrun the rebel bastion of Misrata, 200km east of Tripoli. This was denied by a rebel spokesman.
“We still control the city, even its outskirts. Gaddafi is mobilising his forces a few kilometres away,” the spokesman said by phone.
He said 18 people, including three civilians, were “martyred” in fierce fighting yesterday and that “we inflicted huge losses to the Gaddafi forces, including 60 people killed.”
A witness in the western town of Zintan said rebel fighters there were bracing for an attack.
As uncertainty reigned over the situation on the ground, aid agencies on Egypt’s border with Libya braced for an onslaught of refugees if Gaddafi prevails.
“If Benghazi is taken, we are expecting 40,000 to 100,000 people, and we are not ready,” said Andrea Oess, of Swiss Humanitarian Aid.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Bahrain rounded up dissidents today as the United Nations warned of “shocking and illegal” abuses in Bahrain where the US-backed Sunni Muslim rulers are waging a bloody crackdown on Shiite-led protesters.
Five hardline Shiite activists and one Sunni were arrested during the night, a parliamentarian from the Shiite opposition alliance said, after a day of violence that left five dead in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.
But the opposition vowed to press on with “peaceful” pro-democracy demonstrations, calling for protests after the Muslim weekly prayers tomorrow and sit-in actions at the weekend. Agencies