|President Obama has reportedly signed a secret order permitting covert CIA operations in Libya [REUTERS]
Libyan opposition fighters will be given extra support from the US, after President Barack Obama reportedly signed a secret order - authorising covert operations to hasten the downfall of longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The armed rebels - who have found themselves outgunned and outflanked by Gaddafi's forces, despite a NATO-patrolled no-fly zone - could be boosted by CIA interventions in Libya, since the decision was allegedly endorsed by the White House.
Obama signed the order, known as a presidential "finding", within the past three weeks, four unnamed US government sources told the Reuters news agency.
But US officials did not confirm or deny reports. Jay Carney, White House press secretary, said:
"As is common practice, for this and all administrations, I am not going to comment on intelligence matters ... No decision has been made about providing arms to the opposition or to any group in Libya.
"We're not ruling it out or ruling it in. We're assessing and reviewing options for all types of assistance that we could provide to the Libyan people, and have consulted directly with the opposition and our international partners about these matters."
The reports emerged the day after Obama hinted at further equipping the pro-democracy opposition, telling TV networks the US objective in Libya was for Gaddafi to "ultimately step down" from power.
He also spoke of applying "steady pressure, not only militarily but also through other means" to force Gaddafi out.
"It's fair to say that if we wanted to get weapons into Libya, we probably could," said Obama on Tuesday.
"We're looking at all our options at this point."
Arming rebels 'not discussed' previously
At this week's London conference on Libya's future, international officials said the transfer of weapons to anti-Gaddafi fighters had not been discussed.
William Hague, the British foreign minister, said that the country was under a UN-mandated arms embargo and that the restrictions "in our view, apply to the whole of Libya".
Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, added: "I remind you it is not part of the UN resolution, which France sticks to, but we are ready to discuss it with our partners."
Specific covert operations, such as the delivery of cash or weapons to anti-Gaddafi forces, must be endorsed by the White House.
Former officials say these rulings are known in the intelligence world as "'Mother may I' findings", named after the children's game.
Obama was understood to have given similar authorisation for the expansion of covert counter-terrorism actions by the CIA in Yemen in 2009. The White House does not normally confirm such orders have been issued.