Anti-Gadhafi rebels stand at a desert road between Agela and Ras Lanuf in eastern Libya on Saturday.
Anti-Gadhafi rebels stand at a desert road between Agela and Ras Lanuf in eastern Libya on Saturday. Hussein Malla/AP
The Arab League asked the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians from air attack by forces of Moammar Gadhafi's embattled government. The move gives crucial backing to a key demand of the rebel forces battling to oust the Libyan leader.
Foreign ministers from the 22-member Arab bloc, meeting in Cairo, also left the Libyan leader of more than 40 years increasingly isolated, declaring his government had "lost its sovereignty."
The group appeared to confer legitimacy on the rebel's interim government, the National Libyan Council, saying they would establish contacts with it, and calling on nations to provide it with "urgent help."
"The Arab League asks the United Nations to shoulder its responsibility ... to impose a no-fly zone over the movement of Libyan military planes and to create safe zones in the places vulnerable to airstrikes," according to a League statement released after the emergency session.
The White House said Saturday that the Arab League has taken an "important step" in backing a no-fly zone. The Obama administration said there's now a clear international message that the violence in Libya must stop.
Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal looks on under a screen displaying the Arab League's emergency meeting Saturday in Cairo.
Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal looks on under a screen displaying the Arab League's emergency meeting Saturday in Cairo. Amr Nabil/AP
The unusually rapid and bold action of the League, a bloc of nations known for lengthy and acrimonious deliberations, appeared to reflect the shifting currents of a Middle East in tumult. Many other Arab governments are facing street protests and rumblings of dissent stirred by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and their leaders may have felt compelled to act in favor of Libya's rebellion.
League Secretary-General Amr Moussa stressed in remarks afterward that a no-fly zone was intended as a humanitarian measure to protect Libyan civilians and foreigners in the country, and not as a military intervention. The League is calling for the no-fly zone to be a temporary measure. Its members are also demanding there be no other foreign intervention in Libya or other member countries where protesters are seeking government change.
The Arab League cannot impose the no-fly zone itself, but the approval of the key regional body gives crucial backing to Western powers before they can act.
Western diplomats have said Arab and African approval was necessary before the Security Council voted on imposing a no-fly zone, which would be enforced by NATO nations such as the U.S., France, Britain and Italy.
The U.S. and other countries have expressed deep reservations about the effectiveness of a no-fly zone and the possibility it could drag them into another messy conflict in the Muslim world.
Gadhafi has warned the United States and other Western powers not to intervene, saying thousands in his country would die and "we will turn Libya into another Vietnam."
'All Options Moving Forward'
The League's decision comes hours before the European Union's policy chief was set to arrive in Cairo to meet with the Arab bloc's leaders to discuss the situation in Libya.
Catherine Ashton said she hoped to discuss a "collaborative approach" with Arab League chief Moussa on Libya and the rest of the region.
Ashton said it was necessary to evaluate how effective economic sanctions imposed on Gadhafi's regime had been so far and that she was "keeping all options moving forward" regarding any additional measures.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle welcomed the EU's "very cautious" stance on possible military intervention.
"We do not want to be drawn into a war in North Africa — we should have learned from the events in and surrounding Iraq," Westerwelle said.
"It is very important that the impression doesn't arise that this is a conflict of the West against the Arab world or a Christian crusade against people of Muslim faith."
Gadhafi Pushes Front Lines Farther East
The developments Saturday came as Moammar Gadhafi tightened his grip on the coastal road linking his territory to the rebel-controlled East, driving anti-government fighters from the oil port of Ras Lanuf.
NPR's Peter Kenyon reported that rebel fighters fell back in the face of a fierce barrage of rockets and artillery.
Fighters said they were hit by tank shells, aerial bombardment and heavy artillery in Ras Lanuf. The pro-Gadhafi forces have stepped up the intensity of their barrage in recent days, pushing the front line farther east.
Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
A lone rebel mans the last checkpoint before the flashpoint Libyan town of Ras Lanuf on Saturday.
The rebels appear to be running low on weapons, with new volunteers showing up daily with nothing more than knives, looking desperately for a weapon to join the fight.
Gen. Abdel-Fattah Younis, the country's interior minister before defecting, told The Associated Press that Gadhafi's forces had driven deeper into rebel territory than at any time since the opposition seized control of the east.
He said they were about 50 miles past Ras Lanuf and about 25 miles outside Brega, the site of a major oil terminal.
Younis vowed a comeback, saying, "We should be back today or at the latest tomorrow."
The Associated Press reported the area was silent and devoid of any sign of life, with laundry still fluttering on lines strung across balconies. About 50 soldiers in 10 white Toyota pickups, holding up portraits of Gadhafi, smeared with mud as camouflage guarded it. A playground was strewn with bullet casings and medical supplies looted from a nearby pharmacy whose doors had been shot open.
The defeat at Ras Lanuf, which had been captured by rebels a week ago and only fell after days of fierce fighting and shelling, was a major setback for opposition forces who just a week ago held the entire eastern half of the country and were charging toward the capital.
A resident also reported fighting between government forces and rebels inside Gadhafi's territory in Misrata, Libya's third-largest city, 125 miles southeast of Tripoli.
"There's the sound of firing, tanks and rockets," he told The Associated Press by telephone. "We can hear the sound of tanks, but it's hard to go near. It feels like there is a battle at the edge of the city."
Government forces also have recaptured the strategic town of Zawiya, near Tripoli, sealing off a corridor around the capital, which has been Gadhafi's main stronghold.
This report contains material from The Associated Press, and NPR's Peter Kenyon in Benghazi and Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Cairo