Last updated: March 18, 2011 11:44 pm

Obama delivers Gaddafi ultimatum

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Rebel supporters cheer during a celebratory rally

Libyan rebel supporters in Tobruk cheer during a celebratory rally after the United Nations approved a no-fly zone over parts of the country

Barack Obama warned Libyan forces to halt their advance on the rebel-held city of Benghazi and withdraw from recently captured towns – or face military action from a coalition of western and Arab forces.

The US president’s strongly worded statement on Friday, which capped weeks of sometimes hesitant negotiations between the US, Europe and their Arab allies, raises the stakes in the west’s campaign to drive Muammer Gaddafi from power.

Mr Obama, in his statement, agreed with France and the UK in insisting that the conditions, including a ceasefire and acceptance of humanitarian assistance into Libya, were “not negotiable” following the passage of a UN Security Council resolution authorising force against Colonel Gaddafi’s regime.

“If Gaddafi does not comply with the resolution, the international community will impose consequences and the resolution will be enforced through military action,” he said.

Mr Obama, however, made clear that the US was unlikely to take the lead in any military action, instead using its assets to enable “our European allies and Arab partners to effectively enforce a no-fly zone”.

“Our British and French allies and members of the Arab League have already committed to take a leadership role in the enforcement of this resolution, just as they were instrumental in pursuing it.”

The US has been massing amphibious attack ships and cruise missile-equipped submarines close to the coast of Libya, adding to European and Arab firepower in the region.

In Libya, opposition leaders dismissed overtures from the country’s foreign minister, saying the regime’s forces had continued to attack Misurata and other rebel-held cities even after Col Gaddafi announced a ceasefire on Friday.

“He is still bombing Ajdabiya, he is still bombing Misurata. He is lying [about the ceasefire],” said Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the rebel forces in Benghazi, their de facto capital in the east of the country.

He added that the rebels would not budge from their demands even if a ceasefire was implemented: “We will then revert to peaceful protests until he leaves the country.”

Hana Elgallal, another Benghazi-based opposition official, said: “If [Gaddafi] thinks that we will agree to divide Libya into east and west – forget it. We will never accept this.”

Khaled Kaim, Libya’s deputy foreign minister, denied reports that government forces had continued to attack rebel held cities. “The statement made by our foreign minister today about the ceasefire is both credible and real,” he said in Tripoli, adding that the government had invited the UN to send a fact-finding mission to confirm the ceasefire.

However, a US national security official said last night that forces loyal to the regime were continuing to advance towards Benghazi. As well as Benghazi, the US, France and the UK specified that Col Gaddafi had to withdraw from the towns of Ajdabiya, Misurata and Zawiya.

Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, said the US “will continue to work with our partners in the international community to press Gaddafi to leave”.

Mrs Clinton will attend an emergency summit today in Paris to discuss the crisis.

In London, David Cameron, UK prime minister, told parliament: “Britain will deploy Tornado and Typhoon [fighter jets] as well as air-to-air refuelling and surveillance aircraft.”

Denmark and Canada said they planned to contribute warplanes, while four Arab countries – Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Jordan – are expected to provide a supporting role only.

Rebel military officials confirmed that they expect to receive arms shipments from abroad.

“We are asking for weapons,” said Abdul Fatah Younis, opposition chief-of-staff. “Some are on their way.”

Earlier on Moussa Koussa, Libya’s foreign minister, had announced a ceasefire with rebels amid concerns in Tripoli that Thursday’s United Nations resolution calling for an end to the fighting could create a de facto partition of east and west Libya.

“Libya will accept that it is obliged to accept the UN Security Council resolution and has decided an immediate ceasefire and the stoppage of all military operations” Mr Kussa told a press conference in Tripoli on Friday.

Mr Koussa declined to answer reporters’ questions about what was happening in Misurata after he read a brief prepared statement.

The ceasefire was greeted with jubilation in Benghazi, where crowds gathered in the streets to cheer the news.

The announcement came hours after the Security Council passed a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and authorising all measures short of an occupation to prevent attacks on Libyan civilians.

It appeared that the ceasefire declaration would not halt plans by France, the UK and others to enforce the resolution, particularly the implementation of a no-fly zone over parts of Libya.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, said the alliance was “completing its planning in order to be ready to take appropriate action” in support of the resolution. “There is an urgent need, firm support from the region and a clear UN mandate for necessary international action,” he said.

Nicolas Sarkozy, French president, will host talks in Paris on Saturday to discuss co-operation and co-ordinated action against Libya with representatives “at the highest possible level” of the European Union, Arab League and African Union.

Although Mr Cameron said the UN resolution excluded an “occupation force” being sent to Libya, there is deliberate ambiguity in Downing Street about whether troops could ever be deployed as peacekeepers or for humanitarian reasons.

Mr Cameron’s spokesman said: “We would use legitimate measures to achieve the aims set out in this resolution.”

The regime of Muammar Gaddafi had clearly been caught off guard by the last-minute resolution, passed with only days or even hours to go before loyalist forces were poised to sweep through the last major rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

“We express our sadness towards what the resolution included in terms of measures against the Libyan nation, such as a no-fly zone which will increase the suffering of the Libyan nation,” Mr Kussa said. “The total and inclusive freezing of Libyan assets [which was also included in the UN resolution] will have a negative impact on normal Libyans.”

“Libya finds it strange that the United Nations Security Council resolution allows the use of of military power and indeed there are signs that this might take place” he said.

While saying that Libya, as a full member of the UN, was obliged by international law to abide by resolution 1973, passed late on Thursday by a 10-5 vote of the security council, he criticised the decision, describing it as a violation of the UN charter and of Libya’s sovereignty.

The foreign minister added that the resolution would harm Libya’s “territorial unity” – code among Tripoli’s leadership for the often-voiced fear that freezing facts on the ground would create a de facto partition of rebel controlled areas.

Mr Kussa’s tone was solemn and nervous, a departure from Thursday night when Khalid Kaim, deputy foreign minister, had laughed and joked with journalists in a free-wheeling press conference which ended after a mob of pro-Gaddafi youths invaded the conference hall, waving green Libyan flags and chanting “the people want Muammer the colonel”.

His rhetoric also contrasted with recent inflammatory comments from the regime – on Thursday, on the eve of the UN vote, Col Gaddafi told Libyan radio that residents of Benghazi who were “traitors” would be dealt with “without mercy”.

Mr Koussa said that the Libyan government would do its utmost to protect civilians.

“Libya has a great interest in protecting civilians and is offering all necessary humanitarian aid and protections of human rights” he said.

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