In a momentous vote that could change the course of a conflict that had seemed close to a devastating end, the United Nations last night authorised military action against forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya.
Diplomats said preparations for air strikes by coalition forces against multiple targets on the ground and in the air would begin immediately. Early reports had suggested that aerial attacks, led in the first wave by British and French air forces, could begin within hours.
The adoption by the UN Security Council of a resolution to approve outside intervention was greeted by cheers and the firing of guns and fireworks in the key rebel stronghold of Benghazi – even as an artillery barrage from loyalist forces began to hit the city.
The text of the UN document was supported by 10 countries and was pushed in particular by Britain, the US and France. Among five nations that abstained were Russia and China. The resolution, which became politically viable only after the US earlier this week shifted its position to support it, aims to stop and reverse the recent gains made by Gaddafi's forces and prevent the overrunning and likely massacre of rebels and ordinary citizens in Benghazi.
"We have very little time left, perhaps it is a matter of hours," said Alain Juppe, the Foreign Minister of France.
Colonel Gaddafi had earlier issued a chilling warning that suggested his determination to break the rebellion would not be broken by the threat of international action. "We are coming tonight," he said. "Prepare yourselves... we will find you in your closets."
That threat was expanded to all those who supported the UN resolution with a statement from the Libyan foreign ministry. "Any foreign military act against Libya will expose all air and maritime traffic in the Mediterranean Sea to danger," the defence ministry declared. "Civilian and military [facilities] will become targets of Libya's counter-attack. The Mediterranean basin will face danger."
While the resolution authorises a coalition of countries, which will include participation by some Arab nations, to take "all necessary measures" to protect civilians, it also expressly rules out a "foreign occupation of any form on any part of Libyan territory". Separately, US officials confirmed that the action in Libya would do whatever is necessary short of "boots on the ground".
The resolution nonetheless gives military commanders wide leeway to do whatever it takes to break Gaddafi's grip, including the bombing of his tanks, airstrips and possibly, according to US sources, even his troops. Depending how quickly the action unfolds, last night may thus mark the moment when Gaddafi's days as leader of Libya were finally and emphatically numbered.
After the vote, British Foreign Secretary William Hague reiterated the case for the resolution. "We have said all along that Gaddafi must go," he said.
"It is necessary to take these measures to avoid greater bloodshed, to try to stop... attacks on civilians and the people of Libya."
His US counterpart Hillary Clinton took a similar stance, speaking during a visit to Tunis. "Gaddafi must go," she said. Calling him a "ruthless dictator," she added: "If Gaddafi does not go, he will just make trouble. That is just his nature. There are some creatures that are like that."
Defence sources in London meanwhile indicated that the coalition's first targets would be the tank convoys closing on Benghazi or ships attempting to bombard the city. Arab participation is likely to be provided initially by Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, although there were already reports as the resolution was passed of Egypt shipping arms to the rebels across the border.
The US is not expected to provide military back-up initially, although it has an aircraft carrier off the coast.
The operation is likely to be mounted from French air force bases in the south of the country – which is less than 1,000 miles from the Libyan coast – as well as from RAF bases in Cyprus. Italy has also said it is prepared to make its military bases available to enforce a no-fly zone.
Arab involvement was a priority for London and Washington, which are anxious to avoid a perception of outside meddling in Arab affairs.
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, made rounds of phonecalls to Arab leaders on Wednesday. He is today expected to cancel a planned trip to Scotland and will make an emergency statement to MPs. The Commons is also set to vote on the planned military intervention early next week, with little doubt that the action will be endorsed.
The threat of military action prompted Libya to promise attacks on civilian targets. In a fiery television address last night, Muammar Gaddafi said his forces were set to retake Benghazi. "The people will see tomorrow if the city is one of traitors or heroes... Don't betray me, my beloved Benghazi," he said.
After the resolution, the regime's official response came from deputy foreign minister Khalid Kaim, whose press conference in front of television cameras was interrupted when a noisy crowd of young men chanting pro-Gaddafi slogans burst into the room in what was supposedly a spontaneous show of support for the regime.
Mr Kaim congratulated the abstaining countries, but insisted that "there will be no intention of any party to attack civilians anywhere in the country".
He denied that his remarks contrasted with the threats against Benghazi earlier in the day by Col Gaddafi.
Earlier Mohammed Salah, a 33-year-old dentist and supporter of Col Gaddafi, who has volunteered to translate for journalists on official trips, said: "You call these civilians when they are holding guns and you want to protect them? What about us?" But at the UN there appeared to be little doubt about the justice of the action. The diplomatic momentum picked up abruptly after Washington shifted from a position of caution to one of urgent support for a no-fly zone.
Work at the Security Council was also accelerated when it became clear to everyone that if action was to be taken it would have to be within hours, rather than days or weeks. US officials said that while America was not looking for another war, it had also determined that it could not sit back and witness what some fear could become a massacre.
UN resolution: The key passage
The Security Council... Acting under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations.
1. Demands the immediate establishment of a cease-fire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians;
2. Stresses the need to intensify efforts to find a solution to the crisis which responds to the legitimate demands of the Libyan people and notes the decisions of the Secretary-General to send his Special Envoy to Libya and of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union to send its ad hoc High Level Committee to Libya with the aim of facilitating dialogue to lead to the political reforms necessary to find a peaceful and sustainable solution;
3. Demands that the Libyan authorities comply with their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law, human rights and refugee law and take all measures to protect civilians and meet their basic needs, and to ensure the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian assistance; protection of civilians
4. Authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary-General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, and acting in co-operation with the Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures, notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any
part of Libyan territory, and requests the Member States concerned to inform the Secretary-General immediately of the measures they take pursuant to the authorization conferred by this paragraph which shall be immediately reported to the Security Council;
5. Recognizes the important role of the League of Arab States in matters relating to the maintenance of international peace and security in the region and bearing in mind Chapter VIII of the Charter of the United Nations, requests the Member States of the League of Arab States to cooperate with other Member States in the implementation of paragraph 4
Brazil Has a long history of supporting pariah states.
India Like Germany and Brazil, has no veto on Security Council. Its abstention came even as the US championed its promotion to permanent membership.
China Usually abstains when it disapproves of a resolution, sparing its veto for issues of direct strategic interest. Its authoritarian government is concerned about setting precedents for interfering in a sovereign state.
Germany Outspoken critic of the UK-French plans for a no-fly zone, saying it did not want to get sucked into a war.
Russia Has its own internal problems, including in Caucasus. Unwilling to get involved in other countries' affairs.