March 17, 2011
UK and French 'would lead first airstrike'
Rebels use three jets and a helicopter to attack Gaddafi forces
Gaddafi threatens attacks on Mediterranean targets if no fly zone enforced
Warnings from America 'a massacre is about to happen'
U.S., UK and French diplomats have forced the UN to impose a no-fly zone over Libya tonight, with reports allied bombs could 'drop within hours'.
The dramatic intervention comes as Colonel Gaddafi this evening warned rebels in Benghazi to lay down their arms or expect 'no mercy' as his forces push towards their stronghold.
The news follows a reversal in rebel fortunes, with reports anti-Gaddafi militias had used up to three 'stolen' fighter jets and a helicopter in a desperate bid to halt the advancing army.
Fight back: reports have emerged of rebels flying at least three jets and a helicopter against loyalist Gaddafi forces. This jet crashed due to 'mechanical failure' according to witnesses
Desperate: If a no fly zone is imposed tonight, bombs could drop 'with in hours' military sources have said
After weeks of hesitancy over imposing a no-fly zone in Libya, the United States made a dramatic about-face, calling for even more expanded action, including strikes on Gaddafi's ground forces besieging rebel-held cities.
The U.N. Security Council voted this evening on a resolution that would open the way for that, establishing a no-fly zone but also authorising member states to take 'all necessary measures' to protect civilians from attacks by Gaddafi's forces.
The BBC reported that China and Russia, usually opposed to such actions, abstained from the vote.
It is also expected that if the resolution goes ahead, planes from at least five Arab nations will join the international force in strikes and patrols over Libya.
The BBC also said British and French war planes would be among the first to launch an attack if the go ahead were given, with the U.S. joining the campaign at a later stage.
The change reflected the past week's swift reversal of the realities on the ground, where once-confident rebels are now in danger of being crushed under an overpowering pro-Gaddafi force using rockets, artillery, tanks, war-planes.
That force has advanced along the Mediterranean coast aiming to recapture the rebel-held eastern half of Libya.
Gaddafi troops encircled the city of Ajdabiya, the first in the path of their march, but also had some troops positioned beyond it toward Benghazi, Libya's second largest city and the headquarters of the opposition's leadership.
In an address this evening, Gaddafi proclaimed that the 'hour of decision has come' and that his regime would begin 'tonight' to put an end to the rebellion.
'The matter has been decided ... we are coming,' he said, calling in by telephone to state TV and addressing the people of Benghazi.'
'There is amnesty for those who throw away their weapons and sits in their house ... No matter what they did in the past, (it's) forgiven,' he said.
But for those who resist, he said, 'there will be no mercy or compassion.'
Retaking power: Gaddafi's forces appear to be gaining the upper hand in Libya
Cornered: The rebel situation is looking increasingly dire as Gaddafi troops are reported to be less than 100 miles from their stronghold in Benghazi
The warning comes after Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, currently in Tunisia, spoke of bombing Libyan targets.
She said: 'A no-fly zone requires certain
actions taken to protect the planes and the pilots, including bombing
targets like the Libyan defence systems.'
Visiting the region for the first
time since protesters in Tunisia and Egypt toppled their long-time
autocratic rulers, Clinton said the U.S. would support U.N. actions that
gain a 'broad base of participation, including from Arab nations,' and
that military action short of boots on the ground might be needed.
Gaddafi must go,'she said, calling
him 'a ruthless dictator that has no conscience and will destroy anyone
or anything in his way.'
'If Gaddafi does not go, he will just
make trouble,' Clinton said. 'That is just his nature. There are some
creatures that are like that.'
Several witnesses said rebels in Benghazi succeeded in shooting down at least two of the attacking aircraft. Mohammed Abdel-Rahman, a 42-year-old merchant who lives nearby, said he saw one of the warplanes shot down after striking Benina - a civilian and military air facility about 12 miles from the centre of the city.
He said the strikes caused light damage.
Possible attack on Benghazi by Gaddafi forces
Another witness, medical official Qassem al-Shibli, said he saw three planes attack the airport and nearby rebel military camps before two were shot down.
A third witness saw fire trucks fighting a blaze at the airport, and black smoke billowing from the area. Another witness reported that a rebel war-plane crashed north of Benghazi, apparently after running out of fuel.
At the same time, the rebels were sending their own war-planes in an attempt to break the regime's assault on Ajdabiya, a city about 100 miles south-west of Benghazi that has been under a punishing siege by Gaddafi's forces the past two days.
Three rebel warplanes and helicopters struck government troops massed at Ajdabiya's western gates, said Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman in Benghazi, and Abdel-Bari Zwei, an opposition activist in Ajdabiya.
Attacks: A wrecked Libyan commercial plane sits on the tarmac of Benghazi airport. Gaddafi forces bombed the rebel stronghold today in anticipation of an all out assault
The U.N. negotiations took place against a backdrop of increasing scepticism in Congress about the Obama administration's Libya strategy.
Questions focused on what action the U.S. was willing to take to back up its strong calls for Gaddafi's ouster and whether the crisis could lead to military conflict.
Both the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senator John Kerry, and the top Republican, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, expressed frustration with the administration and its articulation of policies.
Burns said Gaddafi's forces 'have made significant strides on the ground over the course of the last 24, 48 hours ... taking full advantage of their overwhelming military.'
He said a Gaddafi victory could mean a reversion toward terrorist support and could destabilise the region.
But he said U.S. action must occur with international support.
We 'need to approach them with a sense of humility about our role and our influence,' Burns said.
'That's why we've attached so much emphasis to making this an international response authorized by the U.N. Security Council and attach so much importance to active Arab partnership, not just declarations.'
Doctors working at a local hospital join other protesters in calling for a no-fly zone over Libya during a rally at a square by the sea side in the eastern Libyan town of Benghazi
Clinton said discussions were going beyond specific actions toward broader authorization so countries can enforce any U.N. measures, though no ground intervention is being considered.
But with Gaddafi threatening to 'rescue' the people of Benghazi from 'traitors' and promising no mercy to those who resist, it was unclear if the U.N.'s efforts would be concluded in time to protect areas remaining in opposition hands.
Senators were in disagreement over the no-fly zone. Lugar doubted that U.S. interests would be served and said the step would require a declaration of war from Congress under the War Powers Act. He asked that Arab governments pay for any U.S. military involvement.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican, said the administration's response was too weak and relied on Russian and Chinese support for a U.N. resolution.
Rubio questioned whether the U.S. had a backup plan if the resolution failed.