RAS LANUF, Libya/CAIRO (Reuters) - Arab countries appealed to the United Nations on Saturday to impose a no-fly zone on Libya as government troops backed by warplanes fought to drive rebels from remaining strongholds in western Libya.
Washington, which would play a leading role in enforcing any no-fly zone, called the declaration an “important step”; but it stopped short of commitment to any military action and made no proposal for a swift meeting of the U.N. Security Council.
Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said the League, meeting in Cairo on Saturday, had decided that “serious crimes and great violations” committed by the government of Muammar Gaddafi against his people had stripped it of legitimacy.
It was not clear if the League’s call for a no-fly zone would provide the unequivocal regional endorsement NATO requires for military action to curb Gaddafi. Diplomats in New York said they could not rule out a weekend meeting of the U.N. Security Council to vote on the issue, but added it was unlikely.
Events on the ground are moving more quickly than international diplomacy. While the EU and Washington hesitate, Gaddafi has marshaled his forces to defy a tide of reform across the Middle East that has seen autocratic rulers in Tunisia and Egypt toppled and unprecedented protest elsewhere.
Pro-Gaddafi troops unleashed an assault on Misrata, Libya’s third city and the only rebel outpost between the capital and the eastern front around the oil town of Ras Lanuf.
“We are hearing shelling. We have no choice but to fight,”
rebel spokesman Gemal said by telephone from Misrata.
“I can hear loud explosions,” said a resident who would only give his name as Mohammad. “Everybody is rushing home, the shops have closed and the rebels are taking up positions.”
Mussa Ibrahim, a government spokesman in Tripoli, could neither confirm nor deny a military operation was under way.
“There is a hard core of al Qaeda fighters there,” he said. “It looks like a Zawiyah scenario. Some people will give up, some will disappear ... Tribal leaders are talking to them. Those who stay behind, we will deal with them accordingly.”
It took a week of repeated assaults by government troops, backed by tanks and air power, to crush the uprising in Zawiyah, a much smaller town 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli.
While the death toll in Zawiyah is unknown, much of the town was destroyed, with buildings around the main square showing gaping holes blown by tank rounds and rockets. Gaddafi’s forces bulldozed a cemetery where rebel fighters had been buried.
The rebels in Misrata are heavily outgunned.
“We are bracing for a massacre,” said Mohammad Ahmed, a rebel fighter. “We know it will happen and Misrata will be like Zawiyah, but we believe in God. We do not have the capabilities to fight Gaddafi and his forces. They have tanks and heavy weapons and we have our belief and trust in God.”
Further east, Gaddafi’s troops pushed insurgents out of Ras Lanuf, a day after making an amphibious assault on the oil port and pitting tanks and jets against rebels armed with light weapons and machineguns mounted on pick-up trucks.
Dozens of soldiers waved posters of Gaddafi and painted over rebel graffiti at a deserted housing complex for oil industry workers as foreign journalists arrived from Tripoli on a government-run visit to the recaptured city.
Thick black smoke billowed from an oil storage facility near the refinery east of the town. Local officials brought to meet the media party said the retreating rebels had bombed it.
Libya’s flat desert terrain favors the use of heavy armor and air power. The Libyan army is also better trained and more disciplined than the rag-tag, though enthusiastic, rebel force.
Arab League Secretary General Moussa told a news conference after Cairo talks: “The Arab League has officially requested the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone against any military action against the Libyan people.”
It was not immediately clear how Russia and China, who have veto rights in the Security Council and have publicly opposed a no-fly zone, would react to a call for action from a regional body; the more so since the call was, according to Omani Foreign Minister Youssef bin Alawi bin Abdullah, backed unanimously.
The White House, reacting to the Arab League declaration, said it was preparing for all contingencies.
“The international community is unified in sending a clear message that the violence in Libya must stop, and that the Gaddafi regime must be held accountable,” it said.
Britain, in the forefront of states advocating preparation for a possible no-fly zone, welcomed the Arab League appeal as significant, but not enough by itself to trigger action.
“We’ve said all along that one of the conditions for a no-fly zone must be broad support in the region,” Foreign Secretary William Hague told BBC television.
“Clearly this is one indicator that there is broad support in that region,” he said. “It’s not the only condition, it’s also necessary to have even broader international support and it’s also necessary for it to be clearly legal.”
The terms of any no-fly zone would have to be agreed carefully and time may be working against the rebels. Its aim would be to stop Gaddafi using his air force in attacking rebel forces and civilians, transport and reconnaissance.
President Barack Obama said the United States and its allies were “tightening the noose” on Gaddafi and that he had not taken any options off the table, a hint at military action. But there is little enthusiasm in Washington for enforcing a no-fly zone without United Nations backing.
European Union leaders meeting in Brussels on Friday sidestepped a British and French call to draw up a U.N. Security Council resolution to authorize a no-fly zone over Libya. They called instead for a three-way summit with the African Union and the Arab League to discuss the crisis further.
“The risks of intervening are great,” wrote Tomas Avenarius in the German Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.
“But the Arabs in revolt share a fundamental value with people in the West — the call of freedom. Whoever does not honor this debt will find himself, five or six years from now, back sitting with Gaddafi in his Bedouin tent.
“If Gaddafi goes on slaughtering his people, the Americans and Europeans will have to get involved in the end. Their own claims to morality and the calls from supporters of human rights ... will not let thousands die in Libya while politicians look on idly from the far side of the Mediterranean.”
Additional reporting by Maria Golovnina in Zawiyah, Mohammed Abbas in Brega, Tom Pfeiffer in Benghazi, Mariam Karouny in Ras Jdir, Tunisia, Writing by Jon Hemming and Ralph Boulton; Editing by Tim Pearce