France steps up efforts for Libya no-fly zone

France steps up efforts for Libya no-fly zone

Ajdabiyah: France stepped up efforts on Monday to persuade world powers to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, as Moammar Gadhafi’s troops battled rebel fighters for control of the strategic oil town of Brega.

France, hosting a Group of Eight foreign ministers, said it was consulting other powers to try to set up a no-fly zone to assure the protection of civilians “in the face of the terrible violence suffered by the Libyan population".

The Arab League’s weekend call on the U.N. to impose such a zone appeared to satisfy one of three conditions set by NATO for it to police Libyan air space -- regional approval. The others were proof that its help is needed, and a U.N. Security Council resolution.

News of humanitarian suffering or atrocities could persuade more powers that help is needed and also spur the Security Council into action. But while Human Rights Watch has reported a wave of arbitrary arrests and disappearances in Tripoli, hard evidence is so far largely lacking.

“Everyone here is puzzled as to how many casualties the international community judges to be enough for them to help. Maybe we should start committing suicide to reach the required number," said rebel spokesman Essam Gheriani in Benghazi.

“It is shameful," he said. “We are hoping today for some development such as a resolution" at the Security Council.

Time running out for rebels

Libyan planes bombed Ajdabiyah , the only sizeable town between the frontline around Brega and the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. From Ajdabiyah there are roads to Benghazi and also Tobruk, which could allow Gadhafi’s troops to encircle Benghazi.

Government tanks and planes have proved more than a match for the lightly armed, but enthusiastic rag-tag rebel force, especially in the flat desert terrain in between major towns.

The government, vowing to “bury" the rebels, took the oil terminal town of Brega on Sunday in what looked like an increasingly confident drive towards the rebel stronghold Benghazi. But the rebels said they had re-taken Brega on Sunday night. There was no way of verifying both claims.

Outside of the east insurgents only hold Libya’s third city of Misrata, 200 km east of the capital. The city of 300,000 was quiet overnight, but residents said they were bracing for an attack by besieging elite government troops.

State television carried a confident official message. “We are certain of our victory, whatever the price," it said.

There is now a very real possibility that by the time world powers agree on a response to the conflict in Libya, Gadhafi’s forces may have already secured victory, analysts said.

“The international community has to act now -- not only to protect Benghazi from an onslaught but because of what it means for the rest of the world if Gadhafi is allowed to remain the leader of Libya," said Geoff Porter, a US-based political risk consultant who specialises in North Africa.

Security council consultations

Britain, alongside France, has led calls for a no-fly zone.

“If Gadhafi went on to be able to dominate much of the country, well this would be a long nightmare for the Libyan people and this would be a pariah state for some time to come," Hague told BBC Radio.

At the United Nations, a diplomat said the Security Council would hold consultations on a no-fly zone on Monday.

Russia and China, diplomats said, would have difficulty vetoing authorisation for a no-fly zone when the Arab League had requested it. Envoys said Moscow and Beijing might prefer to abstain when the issue came to a vote.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday banned Gaddafi and his family from Russia and from carrying out financial transactions there. While Russia has opposed military intervention in Libya, it has not ruled out a no-fly zone as long as it is backed by the Security Council.

Moscow asked for more specific details of the Arab League proposal for a no-fly zone, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

However Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said a no-fly zone would only make things worse in Libya.

Gadhafi met the Russian, Chinese and Indian ambassadors and urged their countries to invest in Libya’s oil sector, badly disrupted by the uprising and the flight of tens of thousands of expatriates oil workers.

International crude prices have fallen sharply on news of Gaddafi regaining territory.

Rashid Khalikov, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Libya, said in an interview he wanted unimpeded access:

“The situation is changing from one day to another," he said. “The main concern is to find out what’s going on, which we don’t know...The civilian population is suffering a lot."