PRESIDENT Obama was increasingly isolated on Tuesday in the face of intense international pressure for US-led military action to defend Libyan civilians and bolster the rebel forces taking on Muammar Gaddafi.

As fighting raged in key towns across Libya, opposition figures there joined European Union leaders in calling for a no-fly zone.  But the White House gave Libyans under fire little reason to hope for swift US assistance. “We’re at the same place as (Tuesday),” a senior official from the Obama Administration told The Times.

“We’re still discussing possible contingencies with our international partners. The most important thing for us is to make sure we have the right plan for a very difficult set of circumstances.”

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added today that any decision to impose a no-fly zone over battle-torn Libya should be taken by the UN and “not the United States”. “I think it’s very important that it’s not a US-led effort because this comes from the people of Libya themselves,” Clinton said.

“We think it is important that the United Nations make that decision.”

Two Libyan opposition leaders prepared to meet MEPs and EU leaders on Wednesday, while Mr Obama’s most prominent ally in Congress pressed him in private to prepare for concrete military steps against the Gaddafi regime.

Mahmud Gebril, 58, Libya’s former planning minister, and Ali al-Essawi, 45, the former ambassador to India, were expected to add their voices to a plea for action from Kristalina Georgieva, the EU’s Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid.

“Everything needs to be done to reduce the suffering of the people,” she said. “If there is a unanimous position to impose an air exclusion zone and that could help the people, it will be legitimate.”

In Washington, Senator John Kerry was urging Mr Obama’s national security team to take steps towards military intervention after floating the idea of “cratering” Libya’s runways to disable Colonel Gaddafi’s air force.

Yesterday the Pentagon appeared to undermine the case for such attacks when General James Amos, commandant of the US Marine Corps, told a Senate hearing that the main threat to civilian life came from “helicopter-type forces”, which could operate without runways.

But Senator John McCain, who leads the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee with Mr Kerry, issued his most urgent appeal yet for military action.

People are dying. The facts are very clear,” Mr McCain said after the hearing, adding later that the American people “are not prepared to watch … one of the two or three worst despots in the world sit and slaughter innocent civilians”.

In Strasbourg, Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian Prime Minister who leads the Liberal group of MEPs, said that an air exclusion zone “should have been decided on a long time ago”, while even Green MEPs took a hawkish stance.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the leader of the Green group, said: “The aim is for Gaddafi not to win and that is what we expect from the EU leaders’ summit [on Friday].”

Mr Obama has so far resisted every appeal to turn plans for a no-fly zone into action, for two reasons: he is determined not to allow America’s enemies in North Africa and the Middle East to depict the region’s revolutions as a US imposition; and as commander-in-chief of the US armed forces he would bear most of the cost and risk of any military intervention.

The White House summary of Mr Obama’s telephone call with David Cameron yesterday (Tuesday) emphasised the need for an end to violence and for Colonel Gaddafi’s departure from power, but included only a passing mention of a no-fly zone as one of “a full spectrum of possible responses”.

Mr Obama’s caution has been in striking contrast to Britain’s eagerness to be seen to lead the international response to Libya’s crisis.

Washington appeared to welcome Britain’s broad role yesterday (Tuesday) despite the embarrassing failure of the mission by MI6 personnel and British special forces to eastern Libya at the weekend.

The EU has already imposed tough international sanctions on Colonel Gaddafi’s regime, ordering an asset freeze and visa ban against the Libyan leader and 25 others, including his seven sons and his daughter, along with his wife, Safia al-Barassi.

The EU sanctions also include embargo on arms sales to Libya.

Meanwhile, Libya has invited the United Nations or the EU to send an independent observation mission to evaluate the situation across the country, a senior European official said yesterday (Tuesday).

The idea is supported by all eight remaining EU embassies in Tripoli, the senior official said.

Libyan authorities have also invited back all the ambassadors who have left Tripoli and guaranteed their security. The eight EU embassies which remain open in Tripoli represent Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, the Netherlands, Hungary, Italy, Malta and Romania. About 1,300 European citizens remain in Libya, with around 200 expected to leave in next few days.

Countries that fail to bring in democratic changes will forfeit EU funding in future, while their reforming neighbours will benefit, under plans to be discussed by EU leaders on Friday.

The proposed new policy towards the EU’s southern neighbours implies that democratic freedoms will be placed ahead of traditional concerns such as securing energy supplies at all costs.

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