Tripoli: Libyan troops pushed forward toward the insurgent stronghold of Benghazi on Thursday and launched air raids on its outskirts as momentum gathered in support of air raids to stop Muammar Gaddafi's forces.
The United States hoped the UN Security Council would pass a resolution later on Thursday that included, but was not limited to, the possibility of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, raising the prospect of bombing raids.
France believes there is enough support to pass the resolution and military intervention could take place within hours of that, a senior French diplomatic source said.
Any action could include France, Britain, possibly the United States and one or more Arab states, the source said.
The push toward action at the Security Council comes as pro-Gaddafi forces have made rapid advances in their counter-attack against the rebels.
Undersecretary of State William Burns said Gaddafi's forces had made "significant strides on the ground" and were now about 160 km (100 miles) from Benghazi.
The Libyan army, which has been attacking rebel-held cities in the east and west of the country, said it would halt its operations on Sunday to give the rebels a chance to surrender, Al Arabiya television reported.
Libyan state television said government troops had taken Zueitina, an oil port on the coastal highway 130 km (80 miles) from Benghazi, but the rebels said they had surrounded the pro-Gaddafi units on the approaches to the town. In Benghazi, the city where the revolution began, residents and a rebel spokesman reported three air strikes on the outskirts, including at the airport, and another air raid further south.
Residential areas of Ajdabiyah, a strategic town on the coast road to Benghazi, was the scene of heavy fighting on Thursday and around 30 people were killed, Al Arabiya reported.
On the approaches to Ajdabiyah, burned-out cars lay by the roadside while Libyan government forces showed the foreign media artillery, tanks and mobile rocket launchers -- much heavier weapons than those used by the rebels.
In Libya's third city, Misrata, about 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli, rebels and residents said they were preparing for a new attack by Libyan troops, who had shelled the coastal city overnight. A government spokesman said Gaddafi's forces expected to be in control of Misrata by Friday morning.
The United States, previously cool on the idea of a foreign military intervention, said the UN Security Council should consider tougher action than a no-fly zone over Libya.
Discussions are under way on the possible direct involvement of Arab nations in any international military action against Gaddafi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
US officials said on Thursday that Washington wanted the United Nations to authorize not just a no-fly zone to aid Libyan rebels but also air strikes against Libyan tanks and heavy artillery.
Referring to the U.N. resolution on Libya that Washington hopes will be passed later on Thursday, Clinton said:
"It is important to recognize that military experts across the world know that a no-fly zone requires certain actions taken to protect the planes and the pilots, including bombing targets like the Libyan defense system."
Britain said the latest draft resolution on Libya under discussion at the United Nations called for "all necessary measures short of an occupation force" to protect civilians under threat of attack.
Russia, China, Germany, India and other council members are either undecided or have voiced doubts about the proposal for a no-fly zone. Italy, a potential base for military action, ruled out military intervention in the oil-exporting country.
Gaddafi, in an interview with the French daily Le Figaro, said his troops' aim was to liberate the people from "the armed gangs" that occupy Benghazi.
"If we used force, it would take just a day. But our aim is to progressively dismantle the armed groups, through various means, such as encircling cities or sending negotiators."
Asked if dialogue with the rebels was possible, he repeated his assertion that they were linked to the al Qaeda Islamic militant group.
"These are not people with whom we aim to talk, as al Qaeda does not talk with anybody."
On the fate of the rebel leadership, he said: "It is quite possible they will flee. Anyway, it's not really a structure. It has no value."
First Published: Thursday, March 17, 2011, 23:45