BARACK Obama wants US military forces ready to act swiftly in Libya, and insists a military no-fly zone remains an option.
In his strongest comments on the clashes between protesters and the regime – in which up to 3000 people have died in the past two weeks – the US President said yesterday he had a clear message for Libya’s dictator.
“The violence must stop,” he said at the White House. “Muammar Gaddafi has lost the legitimacy to lead and must leave.”
Mr Obama’s comments follow division among NATO allies over military intervention, and a cautionary warning from Defence Secretary Robert Gates that “a no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya”. Hours later, loyalist warplanes had bombed rebel munitions dumps near Ajdabiya, in eastern Libya, reports said.
Mr Obama said he had instructed the Pentagon and State Department to examine a full range of options, including a no-fly zone, because he did not want the US to be hamstrung if conditions in Libya deteriorated.
He stressed that he wanted to act in consultation with the international community.
The US has fighter jets at bases in southern Italy. US warships have been positioned close to Libya, and 400 marines were sent this week from the US to its naval base at Souda Bay, on Crete.
Mr Obama has strong support from British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has talked up a Libyan no-fly zone, revealing he had asked the Ministry of Defence to draw up such proposals.
The rest of NATO countries in Europe are divided. France is apparently on side and Italy endorses the use of bases on its soil, but Germany remains opposed. The Times quoted NATO sources as saying the organisation’s military planners had not been asked to draw up recommendations for a no-fly zone, and Mr Cameron in particular had “jumped the gun”.
A no-fly zone has no hope of UN Security Council support because Russia would block it.
Arab states oppose direct military intervention in Libya but have given qualified support for a no-fly zone depending on the extent of human disaster.
Colonel Gaddafi’s forces yesterday returned for a second day of bombing of opposition-held positions near the oil installation of Brega.
Despite initial diplomatic efforts to ease the crisis, an opposition spokesman ruled out any negotiations with Colonel Gaddafi, saying the dictator’s “hands are tainted with blood”.
In the opposition stronghold of Benghazi, 220km northeast of Brega, thousands of mourners chanted “Down with Gaddafi” and fired weapons into the air as they buried three of the dead from the government’s first counter-offensive in the east.
Colonel Gaddafi’s regime apparently has stepped up its recruitment of mercenaries from other African countries, with an official in neighbouring Mali saying that up to 300 men had left for Libya in the previous week.
The fighting at Brega has underlined the deadlock that Libya appears to have fallen into after two weeks of bloodshed.
Colonel Gaddafi’s forces seem unable to bring significant strength to dislodge the rebels. But the opposition does not have the capability to go on the offensive in the west.