CAIRO, Egypt — The U.N. Security Council Thursday gave the go-ahead to Britain and France — backed by the U.S. and at least two Arab nations — to launch airstrikes to enforce a no fly zone over Libya and to protect civilians in rebel-held areas from forces loyal to dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
The resolution authorized the enforcement of a no-fly zone over the embattled North African nation of 6.3 million, a measure designed to ground the aircraft that have given Gadhafi's forces a considerable edge over their ragtag opponents of armed civilians and military defectors.Jubilant crowds in Benghazi, the eastern city of some 1 million people where the rebellion against Gadhafi erupted a month ago, greeted the news with cheers and fireworks.
The U.S., France, Britain — three of the five veto-wielding permanent council members, and seven other countries approved the resolution, which passed by one vote more than was required. China and Russia, the two other permanent members, and three other nations abstained. There were no votes against it.
Airstrikes were expected against dozens of Libyan air defense missile sites to eliminate threats to planes enforcing the no-fly zone.The resolution's key provision also authorized countries enforcing the zone "to take all necessary measures . . . to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack . . . including Benghazi," but it ruled out a foreign occupation force "of any form on any part of Libyan territory."
Never miss a local story.
That wording permits airstrikes to prevent Gadhafi's forces from overrunning Benghazi and other cities and towns that rose up in mid-February against the Arab world's longest ruling leader, inspired by the pro-democracy revolts in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt.
The resolution also called for an immediate cease-fire and tightened sanctions against the Libyan regime by expanding an asset freeze that the U.S. has already used to sequester more than $32 billion linked to Gadhafi and his inner circle.
Thousands of people are believed to have been wounded and killed in what has evolved into a civil war that has helped drive up world oil prices. Gadhafi's forces, backed by tanks and aircraft, have retaken since last week all but one rebellious city in western Libya and a series of eastern towns overrun by the rebels, whose leadership is based in Benghazi.
The resolution's passage appeared certain when China and Russia, which initially expressed reservations, agreed to abstain after the language excluding a "military occupation" of Libya was inserted.
"Today the Security Council has responded to the Libyan people's cry for help," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the council following the vote.
"Colonel Gadhafi and those who still stand by him continue to grossly and systematically abuse the most fundamental human rights of Libya's people. On March 12, the League of Arab States called on the Security Council to establish a no-fly zone and take other measures to protect civilians," she said. "Today's resolution is a powerful response to that call and to the urgent needs on the ground."
In a highly unusual move aimed at underscoring the urgency of the issue, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe flew to New York from Paris for the vote.
As the 15-seat council deliberated last-minute changes to the resolution, Gadhafi vowed to unleash a final assault on Benghazi and show "no mercy" to his opponents.
"We are coming tonight," Gadhafi declared in a state-run radio address greeted by defiant jeers and gunfire volleys from hundreds of people listening in the main square of Benghazi, Libya's second largest city. "All free people should surround the traitors and attack them to take control."
Britain and France, along with two unnamed Arab countries, were preparing to enforce the no-fly zone, said a European diplomat, adding that it could take "between 24 and 48 hours" for the operation to begin.
At least two Arab nations also agreed to participate, according to the European diplomat and a U.S. official, and discussions were ongoing with other governments in the region.
They declined, however, to identify the Arab countries that would take part. One was believed to be the United Arab Emirates, the federation of pro-West oil-producing sheikhdoms in the Persian Gulf.
The U.S. also will participate, but the extent of the American role was still being decided by President Barack Obama, according to the U.S. official who asked not to be further identified in order to talk about the issue.
"This is an ongoing discussion," he said.
Speaking at the end of a visit to Tunisia, which borders Libya to the northwest, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday that the options under consideration by the U.S. included the use of unmanned drones, bombing Libyan air defenses to help enforce the no-fly zone, and arming the Libyan rebels.
With U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his Republican critics casting him as a big government spender as he prepares to run for re-election, Obama has gone to great lengths to avoid giving the U.S. a leading role in another costly foreign military intervention in a part of the world where anti-American sentiments are already high.
Yet after repeatedly condemning Gadhafi's assaults on peaceful protests that ignited the revolt and demanding that the dictator step down, Obama was under pressure to authorize some form of U.S. participation. Otherwise, he risked being flayed for inaction and timidity by his GOP critics and by the demonstrators he has been praising for their largely peaceful challenge to the ruling order in other Arab nations.
Sens. John McCain, Joe Lieberman and John Kerry issued a joint statement Thursday night supporting the U.N. resolution.
"We must immediately work with our friends in the Arab League and in NATO to enforce this resolution and turn the tide before it is too late," the senators said. "We must also build a bipartisan consensus here at home to support the President in taking the swift and decisive measures necessary to stop Qaddafi."
Robert E. Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, said that Western powers would have little difficulty carrying out airstrikes against Libyan targets.
French jets can fly from bases in France without needing to refuel, Hunter said, and the U.S. military maintains significant air assets in Italy that could help with refueling or surveillance operations.
Britain maintains an airbase on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, while the U.S. also has airbases on the Mediterranean island of Crete and in Turkey. The U.S. also has two helicopter-carrying amphibious assault vessels in the Mediterranean that could participate in humanitarian aid deliveries.
"There's no lack of capacity to do it," said Hunter, a senior adviser with the Rand Corporation, a research group. "It's been a problem of political will."
Hunter said that he expected Libyan pilots to stop flying missions with the declaration of the no-fly zone. But it wasn't clear if British or French commanders would direct strikes against Libyan air defense systems, as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said would be required to establish control of Libyan airspace.
One goal of a bombing campaign would be to scare some members of the Libyan military into abandoning Gadhafi, Hunter said. In the early days of the Libyan uprising, at least two Libyan pilots refused orders to fire on protesters and flew their jets to the Mediterranean island of Malta, but since then the military has seemed largely to follow Gadhafi's orders.
"Gadhafi has nothing to live for but to go all out," Hunter said. "One tactic is to create an environment in which others will give up."
In Benghazi, rebel officials insisted that their ragtag force of civilians and military defectors armed with weapons pilfered from Libyan army bases was holding off an advance by Gadhafi's better-trained and equipped troops on the strategic town of Ajdabiya, 100 miles to the south.Ajdabiya controls two major highways: One leads to Benghazi and other population centers along the eastern coast of the Gulf of Sidra; the second runs inland, straight across the desert to the border with Egypt. By controlling those routes, Gadhafi's forces would cut off the coastal towns and cities and could overrun each one in succession.
Many Benghazi residents dismissed the threat.
"For Benghazi, it is not too late," said Mohammed Amer, 46, speaking from one of Benghazi's few operating Internet cafes. "There is no doubt that the international community's interference will help especially if they bomb his (Gadhafi's) military bases and troop concentrations."
At the crash site of a war jet that they claimed to have shot down, young rebels cheered, even though it might have been a case of friendly fire. The aircraft had the pre-Gadhafi national flag revived by the rebels painted on its fuselage. Regardless, any sign of victory, even a false one, drew hundreds to the site near Benghazi airport.
Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country and Libya's neighbor to the east, has said it will not participate in military operations or help enforce a no-fly zone. Egypt has hundreds of thousands of citizens in Libya who might face retaliation from the Gadhafi regime and is dealing with political ferment of its own following the ouster last month of longtime president Hosni Mubarak.
The Obama administration's policy toward Libya shifted sharply this week, after the 22-member Arab League endorsed a no-fly zone over Libya, providing important political cover for the White House.
(Landay and Strobel reported from Washington, and Youssef reported from Cairo. Shashank Bengali contributed to this article from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.