Tripoli, Libya – Hours after the United Nations Security Council voted to authorize military action and a no-flight zone, Libya executed a remarkable about-face on Friday , saying it would call an “immediate cease-fire and the stoppage of all military operations” against rebels seeking the ouster of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
The announcement came from Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa after Western powers said they were preparing imminent airstrikes to prevent Libyan forces from launching a threatened final assault on the rebels’ eastern stronghold in Benghazi.
It was unclear what effect a cease-fire, if honored, might have, but the offer drew some skepticism in the west. A spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said London would judge Colonel Qaddafi “by his actions, not his words.” The official, who spoke in retrun for anonymity under departmental rules, said there was no change in Britain’s military preparations. French officials also expressed caution.
Apparently pulling back from the increasingly bellicose statements as recently as Thursday from Colonel Qaddafi and his son Seif al-Islam, Mr. Koussa — his hands shaking as he read a prepared statement at a press conference Friday afternoon — said that the Qaddafi government would comply with the United Nations resolution by halting combat operations.
“Libya has decided an immediate cease-fire and the stoppage of all military operations,” he said. He did not take questions.
It was not immediately possible to confirm that military action had ceased either on the eastern front or around the besieged rebel-held city of Misurata in the west. Mr. Koussa did not say whether the Libyan government intends to restore water, electricity and telecommunications to Misurata.
Mr. Koussa said he expressed “our sadness” that the imposition of a no-fly zone would also stop commercial and civilian aircraft, saying such measures “will have a negative impact on the general life of the Libyan people.”
And he called it “strange and unreasonable” that the resolution authorized the use of force against the Qaddafi government “and there are signs that this may indeed take place.” Mr. Koussa called the resolution a violation of Libyan sovereignty as well as of the United Nations charter, and repeated a call for a “fact-finding mission” to evaluate the situation on the ground.
Shortly before Mr. Koussa spoke in Tripoli, Mr. Cameron told Parliament in London that Britain, a leading backer of the no-flight resolution, had begun the preparations to deploy Tornado and Typhoon warplanes along with aerial refueling and surveillance aircraft. He said the planes would move “in the coming hours” to bases where they could start implementing the no-flight zone.
“This is about protecting the Libyan people and saving lives,” the prime minister said. “The world has watched Qaddafi brutally crushing his own people. We expect brutal attacks. Qaddafi is preparing for a violent assault on Benghazi.”
“Any decision to put the men and women of our armed forces into harm’s way should only be taken when absolutely necessary,” he said. “But I believe that we cannot stand back and let a dictator whose people have rejected him kill his people indiscriminately. To do so would send a chilling signal to others.”
“The clock is now ticking,” Mr. Cameron said. “We need a sense of urgency because we don’t want to see a bloodbath in Benghazi.” Repsonding to criticism from parliamentarians for Britain militarily, Mr. Cameron retorted: “To pass a resolution like this and then just stand back and hope someone in the region would enforce it is wrong,” he said.
Mr. Cameron will attend a meeting in Paris on Saturday with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Arab leaders, but he indicated that a statement would be issued before then “to tell Qaddafi what is expected.”
Before the ceasefire announcement, the Libyan leader had already signaled his intentions in Benghazi.
“We will come house by house, room by room. It’s over. The issue has been decided,” Colonel Qaddafi said Thursday on a radio call-in show before the United Nations vote. To those who continued to resist, he vowed: “We will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity.”
In a television broadcast later, he added: “The world is crazy and we will be crazy, too.”
Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, which had supported the no-flight proposal, told Reuters on Friday: “‘The goal is to protect civilians first of all, and not to invade or occupy.”
Before Mr. Koussa’s announcement, forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi unleashed a barrage of fire against the rebel-held town of Misurata in the west of the country, news reports said, while one of the colonel’s sons, Seif al-Islam, was quoted as saying government forces would encircle the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in the east. Eurocontrol, Europe’s air traffic control agency, said in Brussels on Friday that Libya had closed its airspace. It was not immediately clear whether loyalist troops had begun honoring the cease-fire.
François Baroin, a French government spokesman, had told RTL radio that airstrikes would come “rapidly,” perhaps within hours, after the United Nations resolution late Thursday authorizing “all necessary measures” to impose a no-flight zone.
But he insisted the military action “is not an occupation of Libyan territory.” Rather, it was designed to protect the Libyan people and “allow them to go all the way in their drive, which means bringing down the Qaddafi regime.”
The Security Council vote seemed to have divided Europeans, with Germany saying it would not participate while Norway was reported as saying it would. In the region, Turkey was reported to have registered opposition, but Qatar said it would support the operation. In Tripoli, government minders in Tripoli told journalists on Friday that they could not leave their hotel for their own safety, saying that in the aftermath of the United Nations vote, residents might attack or even shoot foreigners. The extent of the danger was unclear.
On Thursday night in New York, after days of often acrimonious debate played out against a desperate clock, and with Colonel Qaddafi’s troops within 100 miles of Benghazi, the Security Council authorized member nations to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians, diplomatic code words calling for military action.
Diplomats said the resolution — which passed with 10 votes, including the United States, and abstentions from Russia, China, Germany, Brazil and India — was written in sweeping terms to allow for a wide range of actions, including strikes on air-defense systems and missile attacks from ships.
Benghazi erupted in celebration at news of the resolution’s passage. “We are embracing each other,” said Imam Bugaighis, spokeswoman for the rebel council in Benghazi. “The people are euphoric. Although a bit late, the international society did not let us down.”
The vote, which came after rising calls for help from the Arab world and anguished debate in Washington, left unanswered many critical questions about who would take charge, what role the United States would play and whether there was still enough time to stop Colonel Qaddafi from recapturing Benghazi and crushing a rebellion that had once seemed likely to drive him from power. After the vote, President Obama met with the National Security Council to discuss the possible options, European officials said. He also spoke by telephone on Thursday evening with Prime Minister Cameron and President Sarkozy , the White House said.
A Pentagon official said Thursday that decisions were still being made about what kind of military action, if any, the United States might take with the allies against Libya. The official said that contingency planning continued across a full range of operations, including a no-flight zone, but that it was unclear how much the United States would become involved beyond providing support.
That support is likely to consist of much of what the United States already has in the region — Awacs radar planes to help with air traffic control should there be airstrikes, other surveillance aircraft and about 400 Marines aboard two amphibious assault ships in the region, the Kearsarge and the Ponce.
The Americans could also provide signal-jamming aircraft in international airspace to muddle Libyan government communications with its military units.
The United States has played a complicated role in the debate over military involvement, initially expressing great reluctance about being drawn into another armed conflict in a Muslim country but subsequently unnerved by the reports of Colonel Qaddafi’s gains.
But diplomats said the moral imperative of protecting civilians from Colonel Qaddafi and the political imperative of United States not watching from the sidelines while a notorious dictator violently crushed a democratic rebellion had helped wipe away lingering doubts.
Characterizing Colonel Qaddafi as a menacing “creature” lacking a moral compass, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday that the international community had little choice but to act. “There is no good choice here. If you don’t get him out and if you don’t support the opposition and he stays in power, there’s no telling what he will do,” Mrs. Clinton said from Tunisia on Thursday.
The Security Council resolution — sponsored by Lebanon, another Arab state, and strongly backed by France, Britain and the United States — explicitly mentions the need to protect civilians in the rebel stronghold Benghazi, “while excluding an occupation force.” It calls to “establish a ban on all flights in the airspace” and an immediate cease-fire.
Mrs. Clinton said Thursday that establishing a no-fly zone over Libya would require bombing targets inside the country to protect planes and pilots. She said other options being considered included the use of drones and arming rebel forces, though not ground troops, an option that appeared to be ruled out Thursday by the State Department’s highest-ranking career diplomat, Under Secretary William J. Burns.
The vote was also a seminal moment for the 192-member United Nations and was being watched closely as a critical test of its ability to take collective action to prevent atrocities against civilians. Diplomats said the specter of former conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur, when a divided and sluggish Security Council was seen to have cost lives, had given a sense of moral urgency to Thursday’s debate. Yet some critics also noted that a no-fly zone authorized in the early 1990s in Bosnia had failed to prevent some of the worst massacres there, including the Srebrenica massacre.
David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Tripoli and Alan Cowell from Paris. Reporting was contributed by Dan Bilefsky from the United Nations; Mark Landler from Washington; Kareem Fahim from Tobruk, Libya; Steven Erlanger from Paris; Julia Werdigier from London; Helene Cooper and Elisabeth Bumiller from Washington; and Steven Lee Myers from Tunis.
This article “Libya Calls Ceasefire After Britain and France Vow Action ‘Soon'” originally appeared at The New York Times.
© 2011 The New York Times Company
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