Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi said his forces were set to fight a “decisive battle” yesterday, as Washington added its voice to efforts at the UN Security Council to impose a no-fly zone.
Qaddafi’s latest comments came after his forces pressed rebels in the west on Wednesday and threatened their eastern bastion of Benghazi, despite calls from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for an immediate ceasefire.
“The battle starts today [Wednesday] at Misrata and tomorrow, that will be the decisive battle,” Qaddafi was quoted as saying by state television, referring to Libya’s third city, which has a population of half a million.
Qaddafi urged his audience “not to leave Misrata hostage in the hands of a handful of madmen.”
On Tuesday, Libyan state television said the army would soon move against Benghazi, and on Wednesday, Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam predicted that everything would be over in 48 hours.
A rebel spokesman in Misrata, which lies 150km from the capital, Tripoli, said on Wednesday that opposition forces had beaten back an attack by Qaddafi loyalists.
In the East, witnesses in Ajdabiya, the gateway to Benghazi, said fighting was still under way there. Government sources continued to insist that it had fallen on Tuesday.
A doctor said by telephone that fighting was still raging on Wednesday in and around Ajdabiya, which also guards the road to Tobruk and the Egyptian border in the rebel-held east.
As talks resumed in the divided UN Security Council, Ban spokesman Martin Nesirky said the secretary general was “gravely concerned” about signs that Qaddafi was preparing to attack Benghazi.
“A campaign to bombard such an urban center would massively place civilian lives at risk,” he said.
“The secretary general is urging all parties in this conflict to accept an immediate ceasefire,” he added.
The Red Cross announced on Wednesday that it was moving its staff in Benghazi to Tobruk until security improved, handing food and other relief provisions to the local Red Crescent society.
In Cairo on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said: “We want to do what we can to protect innocent Libyans against the marauders let loose by the Qaddafi regime.”
However, she stopped short of explicitly backing a no-fly zone, saying it was one of several options under consideration.
She did however say that the Arab League’s endorsement of action against one of its own members, including a no-fly zone, had made an impact on the views of the major powers on the Security Council.
Hours later at the UN, the US position appeared to have hardened against Qaddafi.
Washington joined Britain and France in pressing for a Security Council vote scheduled for yesterday on a no-fly zone to halt Qaddafi’s attacks.
US Ambassador to the UN --Susan Rice said that action might have to “go beyond a no-fly zone at this point, as the situation on the ground has evolved, and as a no-fly zone has inherent limitations in terms of protection of civilians at immediate risk.”
Britain, France and Lebanon, on behalf of the Arab League, have been seeking to overcome resistance to a no-fly zone.
“What we want to do is move as fast as possible and we will be stressing the urgency of the need for action this morning,” British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said in New York.
French President Nicolas -Sarkozy, in a letter to the leaders of the other countries on the 15-nation council, said: “Together, we can save the martyred people of Libya. It is now a matter of days, if not hours.”