Saturday, March 12, 2011

Arabs okay no fly zone...

(Reuters) - Arab countries appealed to the United Nations on Saturday to impose a no-fly zone on Libya as government troops backed by warplanes fought to drive rebels from remaining strongholds in western Libya.

Washington, which would play a leading role in enforcing any no-fly zone, called the declaration an "important step"; but it stopped short of commitment to any military action and made no proposal for a swift meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said the League, meeting in Cairo on Saturday, had decided that "serious crimes and great violations" committed by the government of Muammar Gaddafi against his people had stripped it of legitimacy.

It was not clear if the League's call for a no-fly zone would provide the unequivocal regional endorsement NATO requires for military action to curb Gaddafi. Diplomats in New York said they could not rule out a weekend meeting of the U.N. Security Council to vote on the issue, but added it was unlikely.

Events on the ground are moving more quickly than international diplomacy. While the EU and Washington hesitate, Gaddafi has marshaled his forces to defy a tide of reform across the Middle East that has seen autocratic rulers in Tunisia and Egypt toppled and unprecedented protest elsewhere.

Pro-Gaddafi troops unleashed an assault on Misrata, Libya's third city and the only rebel outpost between the capital and the eastern front around the oil town of Ras Lanuf.

"We are hearing shelling. We have no choice but to fight,"

rebel spokesman Gemal said by telephone from Misrata.

"I can hear loud explosions," said a resident who would only give his name as Mohammad. "Everybody is rushing home, the shops have closed and the rebels are taking up positions."

Mussa Ibrahim, a government spokesman in Tripoli, could neither confirm nor deny a military operation was under way.

"There is a hard core of al Qaeda fighters there," he said. "It looks like a Zawiyah scenario. Some people will give up, some will disappear ... Tribal leaders are talking to them. Those who stay behind, we will deal with them accordingly."

It took a week of repeated assaults by government troops, backed by tanks and air power, to crush the uprising in Zawiyah, a much smaller town 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli.

While the death toll in Zawiyah is unknown, much of the town was destroyed, with buildings around the main square showing gaping holes blown by tank rounds and rockets. Gaddafi's forces bulldozed a cemetery where rebel fighters had been buried.

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