|Pro-Gaddafi troops have used fighter jets to bomb rebel positions and civilians supporting them [Reuters]
The United States has thrown its weight behind the Arab League's call for a United Nations no-fly zone over Libya, where government troops backed by fighter jets are battling rebels seeking to remove Muammar Gaddafi from power.
Washington, which would play a leading role in enforcing any no-fly zone, called the declaration an "important step", but it stopped short of commitment to any military action and made no proposal for a swift meeting of the UN Security Council.
The Arab League's call for a no-fly zone was announced on Saturday by Oman's foreign minister, Youssef bin Alawi bin Abdullah, at a press conference which followed a meeting of the bloc's ministers in the Egyptian capital, Cairo.
Amr Moussa, the bloc's secretary-general, said the League had decided that "serious crimes and great violations" committed by Gaddafi's government against his people had stripped him of legitimacy.
But it was not clear if the League's call for a no-fly zone would provide the unequivocal regional endorsement that NATO required for military action to curb Gaddafi.
Doubts over no-fly zone
Pro-Gaddafi troops have been battling rebels in several cities across the Libyan coastline, using machine guns and bolstered by air power to halt the rebels' advance on key cities in the country's west.
The rebellion, which began last month in the relatively poor city of Benghazi, followed an Egypt-style uprising against Gaddafi, who has been in power since 1969, and has seen hundreds of civilians killed, some by airforce planes.
Diplomats in New York said they could not rule out a weekend meeting of the UN Security Council to vote on the issue, but added it was unlikely.
Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, said on Saturday that it remains unclear whether imposing a no-fly zone over Libya would be a "wise" move.
"This is not a question of whether we or our allies can do this. We can do it," Gates said.
"The question is whether it's a wise thing to do and that's the discussion that's going on at a political level."
The US backing of the Arab League's decision comes as Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, prepares to meet a leading member of the Libyan opposition in Paris on Monday, according to the Libyan ambassador to the United Nations who backed the opposition.
Clinton will hold talks with Mahmoud Jibril, who is in charge of foreign affairs for the opposition National Council, Abdel Rahman Shalgam, the defected Libyan ambassador to the UN, told reporters on Friday.
Jibril was received on Thursday by Nicolas Sarkozy, France's president.
Clinton also said she would meet the Libyan opposition during the trip that will also take her to Egypt and Tunisia. The United States has since agreed to name an envoy tasked with dealing specially with the opposition.
Ex-diplomats speak out
Speaking in Washington beside Ali Aujali, the Libyan ambassador to the United States who has also joined the opposition, Jibril said: "We are not diplomats now; we are freedom fighters."
The two men said they were received on Friday at the US treasury department, where they discussed the question of Libyan assets frozen under new American sanctions.
They also met at the state department with Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs.
"Our main priority is the no-fly zone," Aujali said, referring to opposition calls for US and NATO to use their warplanes to prevent Gaddafi from using his air power to attack the opposition and civilians.
When asked to elaborate on what kind of US military aid the opposition was seeking, Aujali replied: "Anything but physical presence on our soil."
Rebels pushed back
Meanwhile, Gaddafi mobilised his forces to defy a tide of reform that has led to the overthrow of long-serving presidents in Tunisia and Egypt and unprecedented protests in several Middle Eastern countries.
However, a mutiny slowed the advance of a Libyan brigade commanded by Gaddafi's son, Khamis, as it advanced on Misurata, with 32 soldiers joining the rebels holding the city, a rebel there said. He said one defector was a general.
A rebel spokesman identified only as Gamal added that the brigade stalled about 10-15km south of the city, broke out in a fire fight after dozens of troops balked at the idea of killing innocent civilians in the impending attack.
The events could not be confirmed independently. Authorities have prevented journalists from reaching the city by the authorities.