British, French and US military aircraft are preparing to protect the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi after the United Nations security council voted in favour of a no-fly zone and air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi's forces.
With Gaddafi's troops closing in on Benghazi, the French prime minister, Francois Fillon, said "time is of the essence" and that France would support military action set to take place within hours.
Jets could take off from French military bases along the Mediterranean coast, about 750 miles from Libya. Several Arab countries would join the operation.
The 15-member security council voted in favour of a resolution authorising "all necessary measures short of an occupation force" to protect civilians. Ten countries including Britain, the US and France, supported the resolution, none opposed it and five, including Russia, China and Germany, abstained.
The finalising of military preparations came as Gaddafi's defence ministry issued a strong warning in a statement broadcast on Libyan television: "Any foreign military act against Libya will expose all air and maritime traffic in the Mediterranean Sea to danger, and civilian and military [facilities] will become targets of Libya's counterattack. The Mediterranean basin will face danger not just in the short-term, but also in the long-term."
After a couple of weeks of wanting to see others take the lead, the United States shifted into a higher gear on the no-fly zone after a vote by the Arab League on Saturday approved the idea in a 9-2 vote. The fear, not without reason, was that any action undertaken with the United States in the lead would be very unpopular in the Arab world and among Muslims, in general.
Meanwhile, apparently invigorated by recent successes against the rebellion in several eastern Libyan cities:
“No more hesitation: The moment of truth has come," Qaddafi said. "There will be no mercy. Our troops will be coming to Benghazi tonight."
Qaddafi vowed his troops would search every Benghazi home and closet for weapons, and that his opponents could expect no quarter. His claim of an impending assault on Benghazi drew jeers and derision from residents. His troops remain 90 miles away, assaulting the town of Ajdabiya, where their surge east has stalled in the past few days.
“If the international community just gives us a little help – stop his planes, some weapons – we’ll destroy him,” says Hamdi al-Jamal, a student who says his whole family will fight if Qaddafi nears the city.
The endgame begins.