The Obama administration signaled its readiness to vote tomorrow at the United Nations to authorize the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya and other military actions to protect civilians there.
“We are discussing very seriously and leading efforts in the Security Council over a range of actions that we believe could be effective in protecting civilians,” U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters after more than seven hours of negotiations on a draft resolution presented by the U.K., France and Lebanon.
Rice said the conflict in Libya evolved during the day to the point where “a no-fly zone has inherent limitations in terms of protecting civilians at immediate risk” and military actions that “go beyond a no-fly zone” are needed. The U.S. suggested the addition of a provision allowing foreign forces to halt “attacks by air, land and sea forces” loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Momentum in the monthlong conflict has shifted toward the Qaddafi regime as his forces use armor and planes to drive back the insurgents. Qaddafi’s warplanes today attacked the airport in Benghazi, the rebel stronghold.
The Security Council decided to continue the talks tomorrow, even as Libya’s Deputy Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi warned that immediate action was needed to prevent two new offensives by the Qaddafi regime from killing thousands of rebels and civilians.
Threat of Genocide
“We think in the coming hours we will see a real genocide if the international community does not move quickly,” Dabbashi, who is allied with the rebel movement, told reporters. “We are counting on international forces to limit the number of victims.”
Dabbashi said he has information that forces loyal to Qaddafi are preparing to begin offensives in eastern and western Libya. They have instructions to destroy everything in their path and the Security Council needs to impose the no-fly zone and go further -- authorizing air attacks on Qaddafi’s ground troops -- within “10 hours,” he said.
Qaddafi has a “large number of mercenaries” from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Chad who are moving east in a convoy of 400 vehicles toward the rebel stronghold in Benghazi, Dabbashi said. In western Libya, he said, another force is preparing to execute “ethnic cleansing” on villages that have rebelled.
Dabbashi spoke as the council debated a draft resolution that would also strengthen existing sanctions on Libya intended to block the participation of mercenaries and cut off any movement of arms to government forces.
“It is high time for the international community, through the Security Council, to pull together in order to draw the logical conclusions from this situation and respond without delay to the urgent appeal of the League of Arab States,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a letter today to leaders of the Security Council’s 15 member governments.
“France solemnly calls on all the members of the Security Council to fully shoulder their responsibilities and give support to this initiative,” Sarkozy wrote. “Together, we can save the martyred people of Libya. It is now a matter of days, if not hours.”
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is “gravely concerned about the increasing military escalation by government forces, which include indications of an assault on the city of Benghazi,” the UN said in a statement released in New York. “A campaign to bombard such an urban center would massively place civilian lives at risk.”
Security Council members including Brazil, China, Germany, Russia and South Africa have expressed reservations about the resolution.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today in Cairo that Arab participation was critical. “The Arab League statement, their very courageous stance, suggests that they know that they have to step up and lead and participate in any action,” Clinton said in an interview on CBS News.
Lebanon’s ambassador to the UN, Nawaf Salam, said that a “number” of Arab countries are committed to help enforce the no-fly zone and that “significant participation has been confirmed from the highest political authorities.” He declined to be more specific.
Dabbashi said five Arab nations have agreed to contribute to the no-fly zone, and diplomats said that group would include Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the son of Libya’s leader, said in an interview on EuroNews television that government forces were closing in on Benghazi, which was taken by the opposition in late February.
“I am sure you heard Saif al-Islam Qaddafi’s statement that in two days they will be in Benghazi,” Salam told reporters before the council met. “I hope the Security Council will prove him wrong on two counts: that there will be no rivers of blood and that the council will act swiftly and have a no-fly zone and other measures to protect the civilian population.”