Britain has not ruled out providing arms to rebels in Libya, but has not yet taken the decision to do so, Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons today.
His comment to MPs came as opposition forces appeared to be on the back foot in their struggle with the far better-equipped troops of dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Representatives of the opposition Interim National Council, who met Mr Cameron in Downing Street yesterday, have appealed for foreign help with arms, including permission to use frozen Libyan assets and proceeds from oil sales to buy weapons.
Asked at Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons whether Britain was considering supplying arms to the rebels, Mr Cameron said that United Nations resolutions "would not necessarily rule out the provision of assistance to those protecting civilians in certain circumstances".
And he added: "We do not rule it out but we have not taken the decision to do so."
Mr Cameron revealed that coalition forces had "taken action yesterday against regime forces harassing civilian vessels trying to get into Misrata", the rebel-held town in the west of Libya which has been under siege from Gaddafi's troops for several days.
The RAF flew 24 sorties over Libya yesterday and overnight, the Prime Minister said.
"Tornado aircraft destroyed artillery and an armoured fighting vehicle near Sirte," he told MPs.
And he added: "In terms of the situation on the ground it is an extremely fluid situation, but there is no doubt in anyone's mind that the ceasefire is still being breached and it is absolutely right for us to keep up our pressure under UN Security Council resolution 1973."
Mr Cameron was asked by Labour leader Ed Miliband whether the terms of resolution 1973, which authorised "all necessary measures" to protect Libyan civilians, override the arms embargo imposed by the earlier resolution 1970.
The Prime Minister answered: "I have said before in the House that we must do everything to comply with both the Security Council resolutions.
"The arms embargo applies to the whole of the territory of Libya, but at the same time UN Security Council resolution 1973 allows all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas.
"Our view is that this would not necessarily rule out the provision of assistance to those protecting civilians in certain circumstances.
"We do not rule it out but we have not taken the decision to do so."
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton suggested yesterday that it would be legal to arm the rebels.
She told a press conference at the international conference on Libya, staged in London: "It is our interpretation that 1973 amended or overrode the absolute prohibition on arms to anyone in Libya, so that there could be a legitimate transfer of arms if a country should choose to do that."
Meanwhile, Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini confirmed that Rome was in discreet contact with a number of countries over the possibility of Gaddafi going into exile overseas.
"I hope there will be a certain number of states ready to host him - maybe under the auspices of the African Union, which can have leverage over them," said Mr Frattini, who "categorically" ruled out Italy offering Gaddafi a bolt-hole.
Mr Cameron's official spokesman suggested today that Britain's support for those responsible for crimes against civilians in Libya being held to account before the International Criminal Court did not "preclude" the option of exile.
"We have got a clear view, which is that he should go," said the spokesman. "We also think people should be held accountable for their actions.
"We are not engaged in looking for somewhere for him to go, but that doesn't exclude others doing so. Our priority is that he should go as soon as possible.
"I don't think exile necessarily precludes someone being held accountable by the ICC."
When asked last night about the prospect of Gaddafi being allowed to flee into refuge outside Libya, Foreign Secretary William Hague did not rule out the possibility.
"That is up to him," Mr Hague told BBC2's Newsnight. "There is no doubt that if Colonel Gaddafi left power - wherever he went - there would be a major change in the situation, and that is what most of the world, and probably most of the Libyan people, want to see.
"That is up to him to decide. That's not up to us to decide."
Mr Cameron said any decision to supply arms would have to be considered with "due care" as there were some "very strong arguments" on both sides.
He was responding to a warning from Liberal Democrat Sir Menzies Campbell that the Government should exercise "extreme caution" on the issue.
"The legal position is by no means clear, as your previous answer made eloquently obvious," the QC told the Prime Minister.
"In addition to that, the political consequences of doing so, particularly among those nearly 40 countries that were represented at the successful conference in London yesterday, is very difficult to predict."
Mr Cameron said he was "absolutely right to be cautious and sceptical".
"This is a decision we must consider with due care. While the legal position I think is clearer, there are some very strong arguments ... we have to listen to," he said.
He added that in his talks with the INC's special envoy yesterday, he had been "reassured" that the group wanted its role to be transitional.
"They are democrats. they are not tribal, and they want to see a future for the whole of Libya where the people have a choice over how they are governed."
Mr Hague later said the Government has expelled five diplomats from the Libyan embassy in London because they "could pose a threat" to national security.
Updating the House of Commons on yesterday's London conference on Libya, the Foreign Secretary told MPs that British warplanes have now flown more than 160 missions over Libya.
Some 15 nations have now committed a total of more than 350 planes to the coalition effort, and vessels from 10 nations are supporting the arms embargo, he said.
"The situation on the ground remains fluid," said Mr Hague.
"Regime forces have intensified their attacks, driving back opposition forces from ground they had taken in recent days. Misrata also came under heavy attack yesterday, with further loss of civilian life, including children, from mortars, sniper fire and attacks on all sides from regime tanks and personnel carriers.
"One obstacle to humanitarian support for the people of Misrata has been regime vessels trying to blockade the port. These vessels were attacked by coalition aircraft yesterday. Four of them were sunk and one vessel was beached."
Mr Hague confirmed that a British diplomatic mission, headed by UK ambassador to Italy Christopher Prentice, visited Benghazi on Monday and Tuesday to meet opposition groups including the INC and its Military Council.
He added: "The London conference showed that we are united in our aims - seeking a Libya that does not pose a threat to its own citizens or to the region and in working with the people of Libya as they choose their own way forward to a peaceful and stable future.
"And it demonstrated that clear international support for the people of Libya. With that support there is every prospect of focused and sustained assistance to the people of Libya as they seek to determine their own future."
Tory MP Rory Stewart, who served as a senior UK diplomat in Iraq, warned that "mucking around" with the international agreement could undermine support.
"This was not intended for the arming of rebels and we've really got to keep to the spirit of the law and not try to be clever with the legal language."
Securing wide international backing for the action at the UN was "a very precious thing", he told BBC Radio 4's The World At One.
"So we should not be too clever at this stage."
While supplying weapons may become necessary, it was not for the UK or US to do, he said.
"We have to be cautious about giving weapons to groups that we know little about.
"But the bigger point is about Britain's and the United States's international reputation and our relationship with countries like Brazil, like India, like Germany over the next 20 years.
"We don't want it to seem that six days after we got a resolution, we are beginning to muck around."
Downing Street said that the five individuals from the Libyan Embassy expelled from the UK had "a very strong allegiance to the Gaddafi regime" and were known to have been "putting pressure on Libyan opposition and student groups in the UK".
A spokeswoman declined to say whether there was any concern that they might be involved in terror plots.
The spokeswoman insisted Mr Cameron "has not changed his mind" on arming the rebels since March 18, when he told the House of Commons that "our legal understanding is that that arms embargo applies to the whole of Libya".
Mr Cameron was challenged then by Conservative MP Bill Cash over whether resolution 1973 allowed for exceptions to the blanket ban to be made in the case of rebels resisting Gaddafi in Benghazi.
The Prime Minister replied: "I think I am right in saying that the resolution is clear: there is an arms embargo, and that arms embargo has to be enforced across Libya.
"The legal advice that others have mentioned, and that we believe some other countries were interested in, suggesting that perhaps this applied only to the regime, is not in fact correct."
Foreign secretary William Hague said apparent differences over whether arms could be supplied were "academic".
Mr Cameron and UK ministers were setting out the position "based on the legal advice to our own Government", he told a conference at thinktank Chatham House.
"There may be different legal interpretations of that (the UN resolution) around the world," Mr Hague said. "I don't think that would be wholly surprising.
"But of course at the moment it is rather an academic point, because at the moment, the Prime Minister made this clear and I've made it clear, we are not engaged in delivering arms to the opposition or rebel groups in Libya and nor is anyone else we are aware of."
He added: "Really we do have a common position on that ... While there may be different legal interpretations, the policy is the same for all the countries and international organisations involved."Reuse content