The West edged closer on Tuesday to military action against Muammar Gaddafi as the United States said air strikes would be needed to secure a no-fly zone over Libya, and regime forces tried to retake a key city.
U.S. and European leaders weighed the use of NATO air power to impose a no-fly zone, with the aim of stopping Gaddafi using air power against his own people to crush the insurrection against his four decades of iron rule.
Meanwhile, Gaddafi loyalists, who have lost control of much of the country to the rebellion that started on February 15, tried to retake the key western city of Zawiyah but were pushed back.
Gaddafi ‘s army also moved to re-establish its authority at a border post with Tunisia, to the west, days after leaving the area, witnesses said after returning from the border.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Libya was at a crossroads in its history and "the stakes are high".
"In the years ahead, Libya could become a peaceful democracy, or it could face protracted civil war" and descend into chaos, she told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The U.N. refugee agency said the situation on Libya's border with Tunisia was reaching crisis point as desperate expatriate workers poured across, fearful of a bloody rearguard action by diehard regime elements.
More than 100,000 have already left the country to escape a vicious crackdown by Gaddafi loyalists which has left at least 1,000 dead, according to conservative U.N. estimates.
"It is not acceptable to have a situation where Colonel Gaddafi can be murdering his own people, using airplanes and helicopter gunships and the like," said British Prime Minister David Cameron, a leading advocate of the no-fly option.
"It's right for us to plan and look at plans for a no-fly zone," he said.
Top U.S. commander General James Mattis told a Senate hearing that any no-fly zone would first require bombing the oil-rich north African nation's air defense systems. "It would be a military operation," he said.
But France's new Foreign Minister Alain Juppe ruled out military action without a "clear mandate" from the United Nations.
"Different options are being studied -- notably that of an air exclusion zone -- but I say very clearly that no intervention will be undertaken without a clear mandate from the United Nations Security Council," said Juppe.
In the years ahead, Libya could become a peaceful democracy, or it could face protracted civil war and descend into chaos
.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Meanwhile rebel leaders in Benghazi said they are losing hope that a popular uprising Gaddafi and are inclined to ask for foreign air strikes.
They gathered for hours at their headquarters in the country's second city to discuss their next move and announced the formation of a military council, but said they would delay any further announcements until Wednesday.
Salwa Bughaighi, a member of the coalition of lawyers and activists trying to run Benghazi after Kadhafi loyalists fled, told reporters government forces in the west of the country posed too strong a threat.
"There is no balance between our forces and Gaddafi's," she said.
Bughaighi said her coalition would demand a no-fly zone to prevent Gaddafi from reinforcing his strongholds in Tripoli and the coastal city of Sirte.
But people who attended the meeting or had knowledge of its discussions said privately late on Tuesday that the coalition was inclining towards seeking foreign air strikes, perhaps under a U.N. mandate, against strategic targets.
"This is something the organisers agreed on in the meeting," said one source, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
Protesters have publicly rejected foreign intervention, but many are now taking stock of the disparity of strength between their forces -- mostly disorganized army defectors -- and Gaddafi’s well-armed militias.
Although Gaddafi’s military is badly out gunned by U.S. and NATO aircraft, the regime has dozens of surface-to-air missiles that could shoot down invading warplanes.
Overnight, heavily armed pro- Gaddafi militiamen attempted to retake Zawiyah, a middle-class dormitory town just 60 kilometers (40 miles) west of the capital where several of the veteran leader's lieutenants have homes, residents told AFP by telephone.
But they fell back when they met resistance from armed opposition supporters in control of the city centre.
The cities of Misrata east of the capital and Gherian to its south also appeared to remain in opposition hands, as was virtually the entire east of the country, including several key oil fields.
Forces at the Wazin border post near Tunisia, which had been deserted by the police and military since Sunday, were reinforced, three witnesses said after returning from the border.
No US plans
The United States has no plans at the moment to ship weapons to rebels seeking to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi as it seeks to identify leaders of fragmented opposition forces, U.S. officials say.
"We believe it's premature to make any decisions of that kind," Tommy Vietor, a national security spokesman for President Barack Obama, told Reuters.
Another official, who asked for anonymity, said U.S. intelligence and national security agencies believe opposition forces mobilized against Gaddafi do not have leaders right now with whom the United States or other outsiders could deal.
While Libyan rebels have shown an ability to organize effectively to confront Gaddafi, they are "not coalescing" yet into a coherent national movement, the official said.
Even if the U.S. government wanted to, there would be "no easy process for funneling assistance" to anti-Gaddafi elements, the official added.
Some experts on the region say any effort at present by the United States to arm Gaddafi's opponents would risk embroiling U.S. troops in another war on top of Iraq and Afghanistan while offering a propaganda bonanza to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and other anti-U.S. militants.
European Union leaders will gather in Brussels on March 11 for a special summit aiming to deliver a response to the crisis in Libya, and to turmoil in the Arab world, an E.U. diplomat said Tuesday.
"What is going on -- the massive violence against peaceful demonstrators -- shocks our conscience," said E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
"It should spring us into action," she added.
What is going on -- the massive violence against peaceful demonstrators -- shocks our conscience
U foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton
Hundreds of young Tuareg from Mali and Niger, including former rebels, are being recruited Gaddafi to fight off a popular uprising, officials in northern Mali said.
"We are worried in many respects," said Abdou Salam Ag Assalat, president of the Regional Assembly of Kidal.
These young people "are going in masses (to Libya). It's very dangerous for us because whether Gaddafi resists or he falls, there will be an impact for our region."
He said regional authorities "are trying to dissuade them" from leaving, particularly ex-rebels, but that it was not easy as there were "dollars and weapons" waiting for them.
"All of that scares me, really, because one day they will come back with the same arms to destabilise the Sahel," said Assalat, adding that "a former Malian Tuareg rebel leader is also in Libya", but did not mention his name.
He said an entire network was in place to organise the trip to Libya.
"Kadhafi's reach stretches to us. He knows who to call, they make group trips. There seems to be an air link from Chad. Others go by road to southern Libya."
The mayor of Kidal, Arbacane Ag Bazayak, shared the same concern: "What will they do next? Come back with the same weapons. It is a danger for the entire sub-region."
The Tuareg, a nomadic community of about 1.5 million people are divided between Niger, Mali, Algeria, Libya and Burkina Faso. In the 1990s and 2000 Mali and Niger were plagued by Tuareg rebellions.
Witnesses report the presence of sub-Saharan African citizens in Libya, who are being used as mercenaries by pro-Kadhafi forces.
It's very dangerous for us because whether Gaddafi resists or he falls, there will be an impact for our region