Divisions opened yesterday between British ministers and the head of the armed forces over whether Muammar Gaddafi should be personally targeted in the strikes on the Libyan military machine.
Government sources maintained it could be legitimate to attempt to kill the Libyan leader if he was orchestrating brutal armed operations against his own civilians.
Their assertion came hours after General Sir David Richards, Chief of the Defence Staff, insisted that a direct strike against the Libyan leader was not permitted by last week's United Nations Security Council resolution.
Senior figures in Washington have also emphasised that the coalition is barred by the UN from attempting to hit Gaddafi; the issue is sensitive because of fears that talk of toppling the regime could alienate Arab supporters of the action.
The controversy was sparked when Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, signalled that Gaddafi could be a "legitimate target". William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, also left open the possibility in a BBC interview yesterday.
But Gen Richards, speaking after a meeting of ministers and military chiefs on Libya, was adamant that Gaddafi could not be targeted. Asked if it could happen, he replied: "Absolutely not. It is not allowed under the UN resolution and it is not something I want to discuss any further."
In an emergency Commons debate, David Cameron, the Prime Minister, said any military action had to be consistent with the UN mandate, but stopped short of ruling out an attack on Gaddafi under any circumstances.
He said: "Targets must be fully consistent with the UN Security Council resolution. We choose our targets to stop attacks on civilians and to implement the no-fly zone. But we should not give a running commentary on targeting."
Sir Menzies Campbell, former Liberal Democrat leader, said: "Neither the resolution nor international law would justify the specific targeting or, in truth, assassination of Colonel Gaddafi. But if he were engaged in direct control of military occupations contrary to the resolution, and the command and control centre in which he was to be found were the subject of attack, then he would be a legitimate target."
During the debate MPs gave overwhelming support for military intervention, but raised concerns over how long it could last and how deeply British forces could become embroiled. Several also voiced fears that support among Arab nations was wavering, while others said the action was selective, with no intervention in Yemen.
Mr Cameron said the Libyan strikes, which began on Saturday night, had already "largely neutralised" its air defences and been just in time to avert a "bloody massacre" in the opposition stronghold of Benghazi.
He renewed his support for Libyans attempting to remove their leader and said a partition of the country would not be acceptable. He concluded: "Gaddafi has had every conceivable opportunity to stop massacring his own people and the time for red lines, threats, last chances is over. Tough action is needed now to ensure that people in Libya can lead their lives without fear and with access to the basic needs of life. That is what the Security Council requires, that is what we are seeking to deliver."
The SNP Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, urged the Government to "stick to the terms of the UN resolution to address concerns about an open-ended commitment and the potential for mission creep".
Labour MP Joan Ruddock warned that only Western countries had been involved in the action and called for the Arab League to be "drawn properly into the strategic decision-making".
Tory MP John Baron suggested the coalition should have waited for Arab countries to implement a no-fly zone, adding: "After all, we have been selling these Arab nations the capability." Mr Cameron told him that Benghazi would have fallen within hours if action had not begun on Saturday.
Last night, the Government won clear backing for the military action, with 557 supporting the involvement of UK forces, and 13 MPs voting against.
A ComRes poll last night for ITV found that public support for the action in Libya is lukewarm, with only 35 per cent believing it was right for the UK to take action against Gaddafi forces and 53 per cent saying it would be unacceptable for British personnel to risk death or injury.Reuse content