THE West’s response to a defiant Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is in disarray, with NATO allies divided over armed intervention and the Libyan regime contemptuously rejecting moves to investigate its alleged crimes against humanity.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was accused by a senior NATO official of “jumping the gun” for announcing that he had asked the Ministry of Defence to draw up no-fly zone proposals, while the rift between the US and Britain was underlined as the White House continued to soft-pedal on military action.

“He may have rowed back now but as soon as he made it public that he was in favour of a no-fly zone, Cameron raised expectations,” one official said.

Barack Obama struck a cautious note over any kind of military intervention. While saying that a no-fly zone remained an option, he gave warning that the ownership of the Egyptian revolution by its own people had been important to its success.

“One of the reasons we did not see any anti-American protests was because they didn’t see that we tried to engineer an outcome,” the US President said, adding that the US had to ensure “we are on the right side of history”.

But the British Prime Minister won support from France, Europe’s other main military power

The Libyan air force launched strikes for the second day on the rebel-held town of Brega, where The Times was told that children were among the pro-Gaddafi forces killed, suggesting the use of child soldiers as mercenaries for the regime.

Amid Western divisions, the strongest effort to halt the bloodshed came from the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The fledgeling war crimes body said that it was investigating Colonel Gaddafi, three of his sons and his inner circle for crimes against humanity. ICC sources confirmed that the high-profile Saif Gaddafi was included in the list.

Although it is seen by some as a paper tiger, the court’s rapid announcement after a UN request at the weekend to examine Libya was intended to deter the regime from ordering more attacks on civilians.

Musa Ibrahim, a Libyan governmment spokesman, called the ICC investigation “close to a joke” because no fact-finding mission had been sent to his country.

The rebels’ self-declared national council rejected proposals by Venezuelan President Huge Chavez to mediate in the crisis; an offer that was accepted by Colonel Gaddafi.

Mr Obama tried to galvanise the West’s response by calling for the first time on camera for Colonel Gaddafi to step down: “The violence must stop. Muammar Gaddafi has lost the legitimacy to lead and he must leave.”

Officials in his administration are increasingly voicing concern about the concept of a no-fly zone, the most vociferous being Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who has warned that Libya’s air defences would have to be destroyed before air patrols could safely be launched.

Rebutting the notion that a no-fly zone could involve simply putting a few aircraft into Libyan airspace, Mr Gates said: “Let’s just call a spade a spade, a no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defences, that’s the way you do a no-fly zone, and then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down.”

In remarks that seemed directed at Mr Cameron, Mr Gates added that “there’s a lot of, frankly, loose talk about some of these military options”.

His position, backed by Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, cemented the divisions already apparent within NATO.

Alliance sources told The Times that military planners at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, in Mons, Belgium, had not even been tasked to draw up recommendations for a no-fly zone.

State Department officials echoed Hillary Clinton’s warning that Western military intervention would be controversial within the Arab world and could even harm the legitimacy of the Libyan opposition. “There’s clear concern about what the unintended consequences of any action could be,” one official said.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague rejected suggestions that Britain was isolated in its push for military action as he met his French counterpart, Alain Juppe, in Paris.

“We have agreed that the international community, including the United States, continue to plan for different contingencies, including a no-fly zone, to ensure we can respond swiftly and resolutely to events in Libya,” Mr Hague said.

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