THE British government has raised the possibility of assassinating Muammar Gaddafi to force regime change in Libya, after a barrage of allied air strikes successfully imposed a no-fly zone over the country.

British Defence Secretary Liam Fox said yesterday that Gaddafi was a “legitimate target” after airstrikes flattened the control and command centre in his Tripoli compound and as strains started to appear over the multinational operation.

The comments by Dr Fox fuelled international complaints, particularly from the Arab League, that US and British cruise missile strikes – including one that hit Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli – had gone beyond a UN resolution intended to stop the dictator using violence against his own people.

The Libyan military declared a ceasefire and halted its siege of the rebel-held city of Benghazi in the country’s east yesterday in response to attacks by 124 Tomahawk cruise missiles that knocked out the country’s air defences. Jet fighters also destroyed Libyan tanks and armoured vehicles outside Benghazi.

Coalition forces led by the US, Britain and France were sceptical about Gaddafi honouring the ceasefire, but confirmed that Libya’s leader was largely isolated.

Exposing differences within the UN-backed international coalition, Britain’s Defence Secretary said that killing Gaddafi “would potentially be a possibility” although civilian casualties would have to be taken into account.

Dr Fox was also reported in London’s Daily Mail saying he would sanction a “bunker-buster” attack on Gaddafi’s residence if civilians could be spared.  The US promptly urged against any widening of objectives set by the UN Security Council resolution it backed last Friday.

It also denied that Gaddafi was an intended target, despite President Barack Obama having demanded the dictator step aside after losing the legitimacy to rule. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates dismissed the notion that Gaddafi should be targeted, saying allied forces needed to stick within the mandate of resolution 1973. “If we start adding objectives, then I think we create a problem in that respect,” he said. “I also think it is unwise to set as specific goals things that you may or may not be able to achieve.”

With the US wary about its role in Libya being portrayed as an American quest for power, and not wanting to be embroiled in another war, Dr Gates insisted the US would not have the pre-eminent role in military action after leading the assault with cruise missiles to knock out the country’s air defences.

Pentagon spokesman Vice-Admiral William Gortney yesterday hailed the success of attacks on Libya’s air defences that had freed the skies for patrols by allied jets. “The no-fly zone is now effectively in place,” he said.

Admiral Gortney also talked down the ambitions of the UN-backed mission. “We are not going after Gaddafi,” he said. “At this particular point, I can guarantee he is not on the target list.”

A senior military official from the international coalition confirmed the strike on Gaddafi’s headquarters, but insisted the Libyan dictator was not the intended target.

He said allied forces did not know Gaddafi’s whereabouts and the intent of the missile attack was to destroy an area inside the compound that controlled Libyan forces.

Gaddafi has key military leaders and personnel based in his compound as well as underground bunkers and an airstrip. Libyan officials were quick to give reporters a tour of the compound. “It was a barbaric bombing,” spokesman Ibrahim Mussa said.  Scores of civilians, including children, were in the compound last night raising suggestions they are being used as human shields.

Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa on Sunday expressed concerns about the extent of bombing, saying the league had given support for a no-fly operation and not a broader operation.

Britain, France and the US are very keen to quickly involve Arab countries to try to dispel the suggestion it is a US-led operation. Support from the league was a pre-condition for US support of the UN resolution.

“What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians,” Mr Moussa said on Sunday.

But standing beside Ban Ki-moon at the league’s headquarters in Cairo last night, Mr Moussa changed his tune after the UN secretary-general said it was vital the world speak as one to implement resolution 1973 and only the support of the Arab world had allowed “strong and decisive measures” to be taken.

“We are committed to the UNSC Resolution 1973, we have no objection to this decision, particularly as it does not call for an invasion of Libyan territory,” Mr Moussa said. “We are working in co-ordination with the United Nations to protect the civilians in Libya.”

Mr Moussa said his earlier comments had been motivated by concerns about civilians being caught up in the coalition strikes, as Arab governments did not want to see more deaths in Libya.

Russia, which abstained from the vote on the UN resolution rather than prevent it from passing by using its power of veto, also expressed concerns about the extent of the bombing and possible civilian casualties.  The resolution passed last Friday permitted “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya – a much broader form of wording than the original suggestion of a no-fly zone.

The issue of civilian casualties will be crucial in whether the operation keeps any Arab League support in coming weeks.  Coalition leaders were hoping that Qatar would provide at least four fighter jets imminently and were talking to Kuwait and other Arab countries to try to get at least a nominal involvement.

The Arab League involvement is a complicated one – one of the sponsors of the UN resolution was Lebanon. The US, France and Britain wanted an Arab country to be sponsor, and Lebanon volunteered.

However, since militant Islamic group Hezbollah effectively controls the country following the collapse of the government earlier this year, any military involvement by Lebanon alongside the US would be impossible.

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