LIBYAN dictator Muammar Gaddafi late last night blinked in the face of NATO airstrikes, calling an immediate ceasefire after the UN Security Council backed a no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians.
Libyan Foreign Minister Mussa Kussa said the regime would halt all military operations immediately, as Britain and France deployed fighter jets to bases in readiness to strike Gaddafi troops attacking rebel positions.
“Libya has decided an immediate ceasefire and an immediate halt to all military operations,” Mr Kussa told a press conference in Tripoli.
He said because Libya was a member of the UN it was “obliged to accept the UN Security Council’s resolutions”.
The backdown came after Gaddafi said in an interview aired on Portuguese state television that the Security Council had “no mandate” for such a resolution, “which we absolutely do not recognise”.
“This is not a war between two countries that permits the council to intervene,” he argued. The UN Charter “does not permit interference in the domestic affairs” of a country.
The backdown was also in contrast to a threat by Gaddafi, before the Security Council resolution was passed, to “turn into hell the lives” of anyone who attacked Libya.
Eurocontrol said Tripoli had denied it had closed its airspace, but the air traffic agency said European governments had banned all civilian flights to Libya.
The council endorsed the use of force to stop Gaddafi’s military mounting an assault on the rebel-controlled city of Benghazi, voting to authorise “all necessary measures”.
The UN resolution was a late effort to stop the rebels being overrun as Gaddafi tries to seize back control of his country after a revolt inspired by the ousting of regimes in Egypt and Tunisia.
British, French and US aircraft were to begin air attacks with support from Arab states.
However, UN resolution 1973 rules out sending in foreign ground troops.
British Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons last night that Britain would move fighter jets to bases near Libya in the “coming hours”.
“I can tell the house that we will deploy Tornado and Typhoon as well as air-to-air refuelling and surveillance aircraft,” he said.
“Preparations to deploy these have already started and in the coming hours they will move to air bases from where they can take the necessary action.”
Britain has an air base on Cyprus that could be used to launch attacks, and it also has two frigates, HMS Cumberland and HMS Westminster, already in the Mediterranean.
French government spokesman Francois Baroin said last night that the strikes would come “rapidly . . . within a few hours”.
Belgium was ready to take part in military action with six F-16 fighter planes stationed in Greece and a frigate in the Mediterranean, European Affairs Minister Olivier Chastel said last night.
Spanish Defence Minister Carme Chacon said last night that Madrid would allow NATO to use two military bases and also provide air and naval forces for use in air operations over Libya.
Possible targets include Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli, believed to be the command centre of the counter-offensive against the rebels. The wide-ranging resolution was passed shortly after Gaddafi said his forces would show “no mercy” when they attacked the headquarters of the opposition in Benghazi. It was greeted with celebrations in Benghazi.
The resolution – the first to impose a no-fly zone since action against Iraq in the early 1990s and over the former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s – was passed 10-0. China and Russia – permanent Security Council members that unexpectedly refrained from using their veto power – Germany, India and Brazil abstained.
The resolution agreed to “a ban on all flights in the airspace of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in order to help protect civilians”.
It authorised UN member states to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in populated areas under threat of attack, but stopped short of endorsing an occupation force.
The resolution is a swift turnabout after the G8 failed to reach an agreement at the weekend on a no-fly zone and the Obama administration had demonstrated US hesitation for weeks.
With US backing, France and Britain led the moves in the Security Council yesterday.
President Barack Obama – who had said Gaddafi must leave office after losing his legitimacy, but was reluctant to impose a no-fly zone without international and regional support – yesterday called Mr Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy to co-ordinate their strategy. A statement issued by the White House said the leaders had agreed that Libya must immediately comply with all terms of the UN resolution and that all violence against civilians must cease. “The leaders agreed to co-ordinate closely on the next steps, and to continue working with Arab and other international partners to ensure the enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions on Libya.”
Mr Cameron and Mr Sarkozy have been trenchant in their support for decisive action on Libya in recent days, while Mr Obama was concerned not to have military action perceived in the Arab world as unwanted US intervention.
Arab states have given their support to a no-fly zone despite the difficulty of turning against one of their former allies.
With the council calling for “co-operation” from Arab countries, Qatar said last night it would join the action. The United Arab Emirates is expected to participate.
Julia Gillard gave Australia’s strong support to the UN resolution, saying her government had been among the first to call for decisive action by the international community, including a UN-mandated no-fly zone.
“This is particularly timely given our fears for the people of Benghazi, who are facing attack from Gaddafi’s forces,” the Prime Minister said.
Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd took a much more assertive position in pressing for a no-fly zone than Ms Gillard, who had only been willing to say it was one among options.
“Let us all hope and pray that this final resolve of the international community is not too late for the people of Libya,” he said. “The diplomatic effort has been tortuous. The military effort is now critical.”
He confirmed Australia would not provide military support