UN at odds on no-fly zone as Libyan rebels keep up calls for help

Forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi are marching towards the opposition-held town of Benghazi as France, Britain and Lebanon struggled to persuade the UN Security Council to allow foreign jets to assist the insurgents with much-needed air power.

NEW YORK // As Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi readied an assault on rebel-held Benghazi last night, France, Britain and Lebanon were struggling to persuade the UN Security Council to allow foreign jets to assist the insurgents with much-needed air power.

Britain's ambassador to the UN, Mark Lyall Grant, said the council should "move as fast as possible" to authorise a no-fly zone over Libya before the rebels are quashed, but warned that members of the 15-nation body still had reservations about foreign military intervention.

"We want progress as soon as possible and we will want a vote as soon as possible, but obviously we are not going to put a resolution to a vote that is not going to get the requisite number of votes to pass," he told reporters before yesterday's closed-door negotiations.

Debate has centred in Manhattan and in Paris, where the UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed held talks with his French counterpart, Alain Juppé, on the sidelines of a meeting of envoys from the G8 group of eight major economies.

The UAE news agency WAM said they discussed the "latest developments in the region, with special emphasis on the situations in Libya and Bahrain" and the draft Security Council resolution, which may not be agreed upon before an end to Libya's rebellion.

Pressure was mounting on the UN Security Council as Col Qaddafi's advance gained momentum and his son Saif, who has denounced the protesters-turned-fighters, told Benghazi's rebels to lay down their arms and predicted: "Everything will be over in 48 hours."

Lebanon's ambassador to the UN, Nawaf Salam, said the top UN top body had to act fast and prevent the "rivers of blood" that Col Qaddafi's ruling clique promised before the two-day deadline expires. Lebanon holds the Arab seat on the council.

It remained unclear when members would vote. Mr Salam said Arab nations are ready to take part in policing a no-fly zone, which is seen as essential for winning international approval. The no-fly zone was requested by Libya's rebels and would not constitute illegal foreign intervention with UN approval, he said.

"It doesn't matter whether it's three or five or seven [countries]. What's politically important is that there will be significant Arab participation and this has been confirmed from the highest political authorities," Mr Salam said.

Two permanent veto-weilding council members, Russia and China, have opposed the no-fly zone, while the United States, already engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, is loath to militarily engage in another Muslim-majority country.

US diplomats said they are "engaged on the text", which was introduced on Tuesday and includes no-fly provisions, calls for tighter enforcement of an arms embargo and increasing the number of Libyans who will be subject to asset freezes and travel bans.

Guido Westerwelle, the foreign minister of Germany, which holds a non-permanent council seat, said: "One has to ask the question whether military intervention would hurt more than it helps. We do not want to get sucked into a war in North Africa and we would not like to step on a slippery slope."

Diplomats wrangled as Col Qaddafi set his sights on Benghazi and his forces vied for control of the rebel-held cities of Misrata and Ajdabiya. Pro-Qaddafi troops attacked Misrata, the largest rebel stronghold in western Libya, shelling the city from tanks from three directions, Bloomberg News reported.

Ajdabiya, 160 kilometres from the rebel capital, remained under rebel control despite airstrikes and artillery barrages that continued until late yesterday. Libya's state-run television broadcast an appeal to the people of Benghazi urging them to join Col Qaddafi's troops.

The army "is coming to secure you and to lift the injustice and horror off you and to protect your pure souls and precious blood," said the broadcast, which has been airing since yesterday to deter a rebellion against Col Qaddafi's 41-year rule.

As Col Qaddafi's forces gained momentum, refugees continued fleeing from rebel-held areas to Egypt and Tunisia in fear of an impending final assault, while dissident leaders lashed out at the West for failing to come to their aid.

"People are fed up. They are waiting impatiently for an international move," Saadoun al Misrati, a rebel spokesman in the city of Misrata, told the Associated Press. "What Qaddafi is doing, he is exploiting delays by the international community. People are very angry that no action is being taken against Qaddafi's weaponry."