Nato ready to take lead role in enforcing Libyan no-fly zone

US speculates for the first time that Colonel Muammar Qaddafi is preparing his own exit strategy as enemies plan a governing body to replace the current regime. led by defector Mahmoud Jibril.

Coalition leaders were yesterday edging closer yesterday to agreement for Nato to take over military leadership of enforcing the Libyan no-fly zone as the US speculated for the first time that Colonel Muammar Qaddafi was preparing his own exit strategy.

A frantic round of consultations in which the US president Barack Obama spoke by telephone to French, British, Turkish and Arab alliance partners raised hopes that reservations over the way forward had been resolved.

Mr Obama, anxious to avoid his country becoming embroiled in another hazardous long-term conflict in Muslim territory, had promised that American command of the UN-endorsed operation would be transferred within days.

The key obstacles were French objections to Nato assuming political direction of the campaign, Arab insistence on a role in decision-making and Turkish unease at the intensity of air strikes on Libya.

What appears to have emerged is a dual approach in which Nato takes purely operational command while France gets something close to its wish for a political leadership drawing members from all regions represented by the coalition nations, including the Arab world.

The US president said he expected the handover to be completed within days, not weeks.

"When this transition takes place, it is not going to be our planes that are maintaining the no-fly zone," he told reporters in El Salvador at the end of a visit to Latin America. "It is not going to be our ships that are necessarily enforcing the arms embargo. That's precisely what the other nations are going to do."

One important element of Mr Obama's diplomatic offensive seems to have secured removal of a major stumbling block: Turkey's right to veto any Nato vote. The US administration says Turkey, which opposes the air strikes, has now agreed to be "our protector" in the Mediterranean and, subject to parliamentary approval today, Turkish warships will be sent to help enforce the arms embargo on Libya.

However, it is clear that confusion remains about the precise detail of any new command structure and how smoothly it can be implemented. Some answers may come at a conference in London next Tuesday to which European, American, Arab delegates from European nations, the UD, the Arab league and African Union have been invited.

A fifth night of the coalition effort to compel Col Qaddafi to comply with UN Security Council resolution 1973 began after confirmation from US defence officials of further air strikes designed to weaken the regime's forces.

The commander of British air operations, Air Vice-Marshall Greg Bagwell, was reported by the BBC to have said Libya's air force "no longer exists as a fighting force", enabling the coalition to operate with near-impunity in Libyan skies.

But the British prime minister, David Cameron, said that despite early successes in driving Qaddafi forces into retreat from Benghazi, there is "great concern about what the regime is doing in Misrata".

Mr Cameron told parliament: "Any idea that their second ceasefire is any more meaningful than the first ceasefire is complete nonsense.

"I think we have made good progress in the no-fly zone, good progress in terms of turning some of those forces back and protecting civilians but clearly this is early stages and a lot remains to be done."

Hints that the Libyan president, or some of his closest aides, may be making tentative efforts to negotiate a way out of the crisis came in remarks by the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.

She told the US television network ABC: "We've heard about other people [close to Col Qaddafi] reaching out to people that they know around the world - Africa, the Middle East, Europe, North America, beyond - saying, 'What do we do? How do we get out of this? What happens next?'

"I'm not aware that he personally has reached out, but I do know that people, allegedly on his behalf, have been reaching out."

Recalling how quickly Col Qaddafi had breached his own ceasefire after the UN resolution, Mrs Clinton admitted that some of what he was doing could be "theatre" or game-playing.

"So a lot of it is just the way he behaves," she said. "It's somewhat unpredictable. But some of it, we think, is exploring: 'What are my options, where could I go, what could I do?' And we would encourage that."

Even so, Col Qaddafi is maintaining an outward mood of unqualified defiance. Addressing crowds of supporters from his missile-hit central Tripoli compound, he condemned what he called an unjustified crusade against him and Libya by "a bunch of fascists who will end up in the dustbin of history".

In the speech, shown by Libyan state television on Tuesday night, the 69-year-old leader promised victory in a classic display of his old anti-western rhetoric. "We shall not surrender and we shall not fear passers-by," he said. "We jeer at their missiles."

But Col Qaddafi's enemies are already planning what they consider a governing body to replace the current regime. Its leader will be Mahmoud Jibril, a US-educated planning expert who was formerly part of the Qaddafi regime but defected as the revolt grew.

* with additional reporting from Associated Press and Reuters