BRITISH and international forces were preparing to launch air strikes in Libya last night after the United Nations passed an eleventh-hour resolution to intervene in the crisis.
Prime Minister David Cameron is to hold an emergency cabinet meeting today after the 15-member UN Security Council dramatically gave the green light to a no-fly zone and “all necessary measures” short of an occupation force to protect Libyan civilians under threat.
Critically, it includes authorisation for direct military action such as air strikes on targets on the ground, as well as measures to deny Libyan planes permission to take off, land or overfly the territory of UN member states.
“This resolution puts the weight of the Security Council squarely behind the Libyan people,” UK ambassador Sir Mark Lyall Grant told the meeting.
Foreign secretary William Hague said the resolution was necessary “to avoid greater bloodshed and to try to stop what is happening in terms of attacks on civilians”.
Oil prices jumped immediately, with April-delivery crude up more than $2 (£1.24) per barrel to $103.47 just minutes after the vote.
Middle Eastern states are key to the resolution, with members of the Arab League able to participate in military intervention alongside UK, French and Nato forces.
Diplomats in New York said Qatar and the United Arab Emirates would be part of any air strikes.
Arms embargo enforcement measures and an extension of the asset freeze on Libyan regime members and entities are also included.
Diplomats said an operation in Libya could start within hours of the vote.
The resolution, proposed by the UK, France and Lebanon with US support, was passed with ten votes and five abstentions, from Brazil, China, Germany, India and Russia.
Crowds of pro-democracy protesters in the rebel-held eastern city of Benghazi cheered, sounded horns and set off fireworks after hearing the news.
But Gaddafi hit back defiantly, calling the ruling “craziness, madness, arrogance”.
He accused the rebels of having backing from Egyptian and Tunisian protesters, who forced their Presidents to resign after weeks of protests.
In a radio address he issued a chilling warning to rebels before attacking the city’s outskirts with bombs and heavy gunfire.
“We are coming tonight,” he said. “We will have no mercy and no pity.” Gaddafi also warned UN and EU leaders that he would retaliate with attacks on the Mediterranean region, targeting air and maritime traffic, if they proceeded with any military intervention against him.
US support for the resolution marked a significant hardening of its anti-Gaddafi stance as it backed military intervention for the first time, despite fears that it could over-stretch its defence capacity as it fights in several countries.
US officials said no immediate action would be taken after the vote.