Russia slams 'no-fly zone' plan as cracks appear in Libya strategy

Governments around the world stepped up the rhetoric against Muammar Gaddafi yesterday, hoping the weight of international pressure would further loosen his grip on power, yet cracks also started to appear in the strategy to remove him as Russia ruled out imposing no-fly zones over Libya.

The United States was continuing to move naval hardware towards the region in a show of force, while diplomatic sources in Moscow used unusually vivid language to show disdain for Colonel Gaddafi, calling him a "living political corpse" who should step down immediately.

But there were signs of a strong push-back against the murmurings of recent days of possible Nato-imposed no-fly zones – designed to prevent Gaddafi from bombing his own people. Both Moscow and the Arab League, which is expected to pass a resolution in Cairo next Wednesday, expressing opposition to outside intervention.

Even in the US, doubts about the viability of no-fly zones were beginning to surface, notably in testimony given in a Capitol Hill hearing by General James Mattis, commander of US Central Command. "My military opinion is that it would be challenging," he warned members of the Senate. "You would have to remove air defence capability in order to establish a no-fly zone, so no illusions here. It would be a military operations – it wouldn't be just telling people not to fly airplanes."

Hillary Clinton also went to Capitol Hill to underscore the long-term stakes in the region. The US finds itself having to jockey to maintain influence in countries now facing uncertain futures even as the mood in Washington among many conservative politicians is to cut back sharply on foreign spending. "The entire region is changing, and a strong and strategic American response will be essential," Mrs Clinton told lawmakers. As for the fate of Gaddafi, she said the US was taking "no options off the table".

She warned: "In the years ahead, Libya could become a peaceful democracy or it could face protracted civil war, or it could descend into chaos. The stakes are high."

Russia surprised some by moving quickly at the weekend to support the UN resolution slapping tough new sanctions freezing Gaddafi's assets and banning travel. But yesterday, the Russian ambassador to Nato in Brussels, Dmitry Rogozin, betrayed strong Russian ambivalence about outside military action. "If someone in Washington is seeking a blitzkrieg in Libya, it is a serious mistake because any use of military force outside the Nato responsibility zone will be considered a violation of international law," he said. "A ban on the national air force or civil aviation to fly over their own territory is still a serious interference into the domestic affairs of another country."

In Geneva last night the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, said the first order of business now should be implementation of the UN resolution. Russia has defence contracts worth about $2bn with Libya, that will be blocked under the arms embargo included in Saturday's UN resolution.

"We need to concentrate on the full, comprehensive implementation of that resolution and we hope that the Libyan leadership will listen to the voice of the international community," Mr Lavrov said.

Speaking to Sky News, Gaddafi's son, Saif, again insisted that the situation in the country was peaceful: "The Security Council resolution was passed because of media reports saying that the Libyan air force is attacking Tripoli, you heard this, and because of that report Libya gets punished," he said.