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Britain, France seek UN support for no-fly zone over Libya

NATO has launched surveillance flights over Libya, considered a precursor to establishing a no-fly zone.

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Libyan rebel fighters take cover as a bomb dropped by an airforce fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf on March 7, 2011. (Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images)

RAS LANUF, Libya — As Libyan warplanes continued their attacks on rebel-controlled cities, Britain and France said they were seeking U.N. authority for a no-fly zone over the country, which slips closer and closer to a bloody civil war, Reuters reports.

The European countries are drafting a U.N. resolution for a no-fly zone, and NATO will take up the issue on Thursday, BBC reports.

"We are working closely with partners on a contingency basis on elements of a resolution on a no-fly zone, making clear the need for regional support, a clear trigger for such a resolution and an appropriate legal basis," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told Reuters Monday.

The violence in Libya has left a million people in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations.

"Humanitarian organisations need urgent access now," U.N. aid coordinator Valerie Amos told Reuters. "People are injured and dying and need help immediately."

President Barack Obama tried to pressure those in Muammar Gaddafi's inner circle to step down and pave the way for reform in the country.

Obama addressed Gaddafi's associates Monday and pressured them with the threat of possible future prosecution for their role in the Libyan uprising and crackdown.

"I want to send a very clear message to those who are around Colonel Gaddafi," Obama said at the Oval Office. "It is their choice to make, how they operate moving forward, and they will be held accountable for whatever violence continues to take place there."

Trying to persuade Gaddafi's inner circle to desert him has been a central part of the Obama administration's policy towards Libya, the Washington Post reports.

"The appeal to senior Libyan officials reflects the administration's assessment that Gaddafi is unlikely to step down on his own, even under extreme pressure, and that the best way to dislodge him from power is to peel away his closest confidants," it states.

Government forces intensified their counteroffensive against rebels near the oil hub of Ras Lanuf for a second day Monday, launching airstrikes amid talk by Western nations of a NATO-enforced no-fly zone.

President Barack Obama said the U.S. and its NATO allies were consulting on a “wide range” of potential responses, including military options, according to Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, the U.N. on Monday appointed a new envoy to Libya and said it would dispatch a humanitarian team as rebels struggled to hold ground in fierce clashes with Gaddafi's forces.

Jordanian former foreign minister Abdelilah Al-Khatib would "undertake urgent consultations with the authorities in Tripoli," the U.N. said in a statement.

It said U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon had spoken with Libya's foreign minister, Musa Kusa, and was "deeply concerned about the fighting in western Libya, which is claiming large numbers of lives and threatens even more carnage in the days ahead."

Rebels have been attempting to hold off heavy retaliation from Gaddafi's forces as the anti-government uprising in Libya moves into its third week. Clashes during the past two days have intensified as the rebels move west along the Libyan coast toward Tripoli, while pro-Gaddafi troops have escalated their efforts to retake Misrata and Zawiyah near the capital.

Gaddafi's forces appeared to escalate their counteroffensive on Sunday as they launched attacks on rebel-held cities and used helicopters and fighter planes to push back opposition forces from the town of Bin Jawwad.

On Monday there were reports Bin Jawwad had fallen to Gaddafi's men.

"The only advantage he has is the air force," one rebel, Saleh Mostafa, told USA Today, referring to Gaddafi.

CNN reported meanwhile that NATO had launched surveillance flights over Libya, perhaps as a precursor to establishing a no-fly zone, an option discussed by Western nations since the conflict began to prevent Gaddafi attacking his own people with war planes.

Event inside Libya suggest that it is headed for a protracted civil war rather than the kind of fast, people-powered revolution that recently brought down regimes in Egypt and Tunisia,

GlobalPost correspondent Nicole Sobecki, reporting from Ras Lanuf — scene of heavy fighting over the past few days — said the retaliation by Gaddafi's men had left dozens dead or injured and severely dented rebel confidence.

"You saw guys coming back in big trucks, some of them were crying," she said. "There was a lot of anger, they were very upset. There is definitely a sense of fear about where this will go."

Gaddafi forces also attacked Misrata, the largest town controlled by rebels outside the opposition-held east of the country, over the weekend. The rebels resisted tanks and heavy artillery using machine guns and sticks, CNN reported.

With medics at Misrata's hospital reporting 42 killed — 17 from the opposition and 25 pro-Gaddafi fighters — and 85 wounded, there were concerns over an apparent blockade of humanitarian and medical aid to the town.

"People are injured and dying and need help immediately,” U.N. emergency relief co-ordinator Valerie Amos said. “I call on the authorities to provide access without delay to allow aid workers to help save lives.”

Witnesses in Misrata said the fighting lasted for at least six hours on Sunday, with many civilian targets bearing the brunt.

"They bombed all the houses with heavy weapons," a doctor told the BBC. "They intentionally gunned and exploded our drug store. They bombed even around our hospital but fortunately nobody was injured. More than five mosques which I know are bombed."

Rebels also held back a determined assault by Gaddafi's forces on the town of Zawiya, 30 miles west of Tripoli, even as the government was claiming victory there and in Misrata.

Thousands of Gaddafi supporters thronged Tripoli's central Green Square on Sunday to celebrate in front of the international media, according to the Los Angeles Times.

"The demonstrators also circled the area in cars as they fired guns into the air, a seeming attempt to rally regime supporters ahead of dark days as the rebels continue their fight," it said, reporting that victory claims were later rescinded on state television.

There was continued debate both inside and outside of Libya over the need for foreign military intervention, with several influential U.S. senators expressing cautious support for the imposition of a no-fly zone over the country.

"[We should] prepare a no-fly zone in conjunction with our allies, not implement it. Certainly, [the] first hope would be, if it were called on, to be done only in the context of international agreement and sanction," Democrat John F. Kerry told CBS television's "Face the Nation."

Senior Republican John McCain told ABC television's "This Week" that a no-fly zone would send a message Gaddafi and encourage rebels, while fellow Republican Mitch McConnel proposed aiding and arming the rebels.

The campaign for international action was, however, dealt a setback by an undercover operation involving British special forces that ended in farce.

Six elite Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers and two MI6 agents they were protecting on a secret mission to make contact with opposition forces in their stronghold of Benghazi wound up captured by rebels alarmed at their arrival.

To add to the humiliation, a telephone call to secure their eventual release made by British envoy to Libyan Richard Northern was intercepted and leaked by authorities in Tripoli.

British media said the incident was not only a major embarrassment to the country's government but could undermine rebel claims that the Libyan uprising was not influenced by foreign powers.

Officials in rebel organizing committees in Benghazi were critical of the clandestine mission. One committee member, Essam Gheriani, told the Guardian: "We don't want new enemies, but this is no way to make contact."

--- Nicole Sobecki, Hanna Ingber Win, Barry Neild

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/africa/110307/libya-gaddafi-fighting-un