Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, whose tanks and planes have pounded rebellious cities in recent days, took to state radio this evening to bark threats at the residents of Benghazi while the United Nations Security Council deliberated whether to approve military action against his regime.
The Security Council is set to vote on a resolution this evening that would impose a no-fly zone over Libya but that also has language that goes far beyond that.
The draft, written by the US, France, and Lebanon, calls for “all necessary measures short of an occupation” to be taken to protect Libyan civilians. Some analysts in Washington say that will amount to a “no-drive” zone, in which Qaddafi’s tank movements and troops could be targeted from the air if they make more aggressive moves toward eastern cities.
Rising calls for international air power
In Benghazi, the capital of the uprising against Qaddafi’s 41-year reign, there has been a shift in mood over the past week.
While the uprising’s militia and civilian supporters were insisting a week ago that they needed no help beyond a no-fly zone, more and more have been calling for the international community – particularly the US – to hit Qaddafi’s forces from the air.
That change has been largely due to a civilian militia learning some hard lessons of war against a better-armed and more ruthless foe. Dozens of the fighters have been killed by rocket strikes and tank fire around the towns of Brega and Ajdabiya in recent days as Qaddafi has sought to surge back into the east.
Defiance in Benghazi
But Benghazi remains defiant. As Qaddafi took to state radio tonight, a break from his recent televised addresses that may betray some unease about impending international action, supporters of the rebellion outside the main courthouse in Benghazi cheered his words, issued insults, and waved their shoes in the air.
“No more hesitation: The moment of truth has come," Qaddafi said. "There will be no mercy. Our troops will be coming to Benghazi tonight."
Qaddafi vowed his troops would search every Benghazi home and closet for weapons, and that his opponents could expect no quarter. His claim of an impending assault on Benghazi drew jeers and derision from residents. His troops remain 90 miles away, assaulting the town of Ajdabiya, where their surge east has stalled in the past few days.
“If the international community just gives us a little help – stop his planes, some weapons – we’ll destroy him,” says Hamdi al-Jamal, a student who says his whole family will fight if Qaddafi nears the city.
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That help could be soon in coming, depending on what happens at the UN this evening. Though China and Russia in particular are believed to have reservations about international action, neither country has publicly said they will veto a resolution.
With growing international concern of civilian casualties – and Qaddafi’s own promise of “no mercy” – the vote could well be a turning point in either direction.
There were other threats today from the Libyan regime, designed to head off international action. Qaddafi’s defense ministry had a statement read on State TV today, appearing to promise international terrorism in international waters if action is taken.
“Any foreign military act against Libya will expose all air and maritime traffic in the Mediterranean Sea to danger,” the statement warned. “Civilian and military [facilities] will become targets.”