Libyan troops advance

Cairo/New York: Troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi pushed into the eastern rebel-stronghold of Benghazi on Saturday as world leaders mulled military options against the embattled leader who defied a global demand for an immediate ceasefire.

Benghazi, which has been the capital of the oppositions` National Council, came under sustained attack from ground and air with explosions rocking the city despite a ceasefire announced by the Gaddafi regime, prompting a warning by the US that the Libyan leader was violating the truce.

World leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are being hosted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy at a meeting in Paris to discuss military action against Gaddafi`s forces in Libya.

Two unidentified jets carried out bombing raids on the Libya`s second largest city and a bastion of opposition after reports of night long trading of gunfire, raising anew possibility of military action by the US and its allies.

BBC reporter in the city said that one of the attacking aircraft had been downed by ground fire and was flying inspite of a UN no-fly resolution.

Gaddafi`s opponents appealed to the international community to halt the bombardment by the Libyan jets amid reports that people were fleeing the city eastwards as the fighting escalated.

"Now there is a bombardment by artillery and rockets on all districts of Benghazi," rebel leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil was quoted as saying by Al Jazeera television.

"There will be a catastrophe if the international community does not implement the resolutions of the UN Security Council," he warned.

While the rebels claimed that Gaddafi`s forces were not holding to their unilateral ceasefire and continuing their advance on the town, the Libyan government said that its forces had stopped their offensive, short of the city.

The BBC quoted Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khalid Kaaim as claiming that the government forces were sticking to the ceasefire.

"The armed forces are now located outside the city of Benghazi and we have no intention of entering," Kaaim told reporters.

Blaming the rebels for continuing their attacks on Gaddafi forces, the Libyan minister called for immediate deployment of foreign observers from Turkey and China, saying otherwise "the accusation and counter-accusation will not stop."

Al Jazeera said contrary to the claims by the rebels, Gaddafi`s forces were reported to be just 50 kilometers from Benghazi towards the south of the city.

At the UN, Susan Rice, the US envoy to the world body, accused Gaddafi`s forces of violating the truce announced by them.

"Gaddafi is violating the ceasefire imposed by the UN Security Council resolution," she said, adding "We don`t believe the military action has stopped."

The reports of fresh fighting in strife-torn Libya came as the US President Barack Obama delivered a blunt ultimatum to the Libyan leader threatening military action if he ignores non-negotiable UN demands for a ceasefire and a retreat from rebel bastions.

"Gaddafi must stop his troops from advancing on Benghazi, pull them back from Ajdabiya, Misurata and Zawahiya and re-establish water, electricity and gas supplies," he said.

A NATO`s top decision making body is also meeting in emergency session in Brussels to review the military action plans for a no-fly zone over Libya.

The meeting comes amid reports that NATO council is expected to issue the order to launch the operation over the weekend.

BBC quoting NATO officials said under the plan dozens of fighter bombers, tankers, helicopters and surveillance planes would be deployed at bases along Europe`s southern rim.

American forces are to take the lead in an impending military action against Libya which may come anytime and US will use `standoff` long reach weapons to pulverise Gaddafi`s lethal arsenal of Soviet-era supplied surface to air missiles.

The presence of these missiles has made NATO commanders wary of sending in their fighter jets to bomb the Libyan military bases to enforce the UN approved no-fly zone.

Under a plan, almost finalised, New York Times reported, Americans would take the initiative to rain down precision guided `Tomahawks` from submarines, surface warships and attack jets to destroy Gaddafi`s 141 SA-2, SA-3, SA-5 and SA-6 missiles in their silos.

Such a missile barrage would pave the way for wave of NATO bombers to take to sky to strike Gaddafi`s airforce on the ground, the Times said.

According to Pentagon estimates, the majority of Gaddafi`s 30 SAM sites linked to 15 early warning radars are strung across the Mediterranean Coast.

"We may do the shaping on the front end," a top Pentagon official said as he asserted that only the US forces had greater ability than that of allies to strike targets from long distances.

"We plan to control the skies over Libya within hours after destroying Gaddafi`s air defences," the Pentagon official was quoted as saying in the report.

Meanwhile, Gaddafi sent a message to the US President defending his decision to attack the rebels fighting to overthrow him.

Trying to strike a personal note, Gaddafi prefaced his letter saying, "To our son, his excellency, Mr Baracka Hussein Obama. I have said to you before, that even if Libya and the United States of America enter into a war, god forbid, you will always remain a son. Your picture will not be changed."

The embattled leader also wrote a letter to the French and British leaders, and the UN Secretary General, saying the Security Council resolution was "void" and violated the UN charter, warning them that they would "regret" any intervention.

"Libya is not for you, Libya is for the Libyans," he said.