No-fly zone requires UN approval, says US

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Despite ever more urgent pleas from rebels battered by Colonel Gaddafi's counter-offensive, Washington made it clear yesterday that it would not impose a no-fly zone over Libya with its allies, without prior approval for such a move by the United Nations.

"We want to see the international community support it [a no-fly zone]," Hillary Clinton said. It was "very important that this not be a US-led effort," the Secretary of State said, voicing the Obama administration's determination not to be seen as leading a Western military attack on a Muslim country without a specific international mandate.

Along with humanitarian aid and a naval blockade of arms supplies to Gaddafi, a no-fly zone is one of the measures under consideration by Nato, ahead of a meeting of Alliance defence ministers in Brussels tomorrow.

But Ms Clinton's words make the move less likely – barring an unexpected acquiescence from Russia and China, both cool on the idea, and both with power in the UN Security Council to veto a no-fly zone.

Despite American reticence, Britain is likely to push for the imposition of a no-fly zone, with sources suggesting that international support is growing for the move first championed by David Cameron 10 days ago. British officials point to the declaration by President Barack Obama – whose support would be essential – that military options have to be considered to end the bloodshed in Libya.

After the chastening experience of Iraq, and the huge damage that the war did to America's standing in the world, Washington's goal, shared by Britain and the other leading Western powers, is an end to what is now a civil war, and the removal from power of Colonel Gaddafi.

But Washington believes the model should be the first Iraq war of 1991, when Saddam Hussein was driven from Kuwait on the explicit authorisation of the UN, rather than the second, when the US and Britain could not win specific approval from the Security Council for the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam.

The Nato summit will not commit itself to any specific military options, but agree to work swiftly to draw up plans for no-fly zones. The ministers will issue a statement recognising that the alliance has to be ready to respond quickly to any sudden deterioration on the ground in Libya.

Sources said that Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, and Gérard Longuet, his French counterpart, would urge their opposite numbers to speed up the preparations.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Nato secretary general, struck a cautious note yesterday as he warned that the no-fly zone plan would be a "complex undertaking" that would require a new United Nations mandate.