London: British lawmakers overwhelmingly supported the country's involvement in the military operation to enforce a UN sanctioned no-fly zone over Libya despite confusion over the mission's scope.
Politicians voted 557 to 13 on Monday in favour of the action as British Typhoon fighter jets took part in their first ever combat mission, assisting coalition forces in patrolling the no-fly zone.
Prime Minister David Cameron had the support of his Conservative party and their Liberal Democrat coalition partners for military action, as well as the opposition Labour party.
But there have been conflicting statements about the aims of the air strikes from ministers and from the British military, amid fears that Britain could be drawn into a ground war similar to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Cameron said there was no legal authority for enforcing regime change in the North African nation, contradicting earlier suggestions by ministers that air strikes could target leader Gaddafi.
After Gaddafi's complex in Tripoli was hit overnight in raids by Western forces, Cameron said the UN Security Council resolution was limited to include the enforcement of a ceasefire and no-fly zones to protect civilians.
"It explicitly does not provide the legal authority for action to bring about Gaddafi's removal of power by military means," Cameron told the House of Commons -- Britain's lower parliamentary house -- ahead of the vote.
But he said the coalition still wanted to see the end of Gaddafi's iron-fisted 41-year-rule, adding: "Our view is clear -- there is no decent future for Libya with Colonel Gaddafi remaining in power."
Defence secretary Liam Fox said on Sunday that there was a "possibility" British forces could target Gaddafi. Foreign secretary William Hague refused to rule it out on Monday, saying "that depends on the circumstances at the time".
But the head of the British military, General David Richards, said Gaddafi was "absolutely not" a target and UN resolution did not allow it, adding his voice to those of US and French officials -- and now Cameron's.
Britain's Ministry of Defence (MoD) earlier refused to comment on reports that it was a British missile which hit Gaddafi's compound and that it aborted a further air attack after finding out foreign journalists were in the complex.
Acutely aware of the controversy over Britain's six-year war in Iraq, Cameron repeated his argument that his first military action since taking office in May last year was "necessary, legal and right".
He said Gaddafi had failed to adhere to the UN's demand for a ceasefire and coalition strikes "have helped to avert what could have been a bloody massacre in Benghazi".
They had "have largely neutralised Libyan air defences and as a result a no-fly zone has effectively been put in place", he added.
During the House debate before Monday's ballot, Hague fended off claims that the vote should have taken place before the operation started, saying if the UN resolution had been passed any later "it would have been too late".
"Once that resolution was passed, we had to move with all possible speed," he added. "If we had not got involved in this resolution and this action, then such a resolution and such action would probably not have happened at all."
As the parliamentary debate took place, the MoD confirmed that it had sent more Tornado jets to the Gioia del Colle base in Italy and had deployed its Typhoon fighter jets for the first time.
"Today, Typhoons flew their first ever combat mission while patrolling the no-fly zone in support of UNSCR 1973," Britain's Chief of Defence Staff's spokesman, Major General John Lorimer, said in a statement.
Cameron earlier called for NATO to take command of operations in Libya, as NATO allies struggled Monday to overcome divisions about the organisation's role in the strikes.
"Over time we want this to transition to a NATO command, a NATO command and control using NATO machinery, so all the partners in NATO and all those who want to contribute from outside can be properly coordinated," he added.
First Published: Tuesday, March 22, 2011, 12:28