UK, France for intensifying military pressure on Gaddafi

Tripoli/Cairo: Amid differences among NATO members over an air campaign to protect Libyan civilians, the UK and France have favoured stepped up military pressure on Muammar Gaddafi`s regime, as heavy fighting continued in Misrata and other key cities in the strife-torn country.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed on a heightened military pressure against 68-year-old Gaddafi during a working dinner in Paris last night.

"All means must be made available" in the fight against Gaddafi, a source in the French presidency was quoted as saying by Al-Jazeera today.

In Cairo, the Arab League hosted an international meet on Libya, co-chaired by UN chief Ban Ki-moon who sought a "political" solution and an immediate ceasefire in Libya.

"We call for a political process so that the Libyan people can reach their aspirations," Ban said.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who also attended the conference, asked Gaddafi, who has been in power for 41 years, to step down immediately.

The meeting, co-chaired by the UN Secretary General and Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa, was also attended by the Organisation of Islamic Conference head Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu and African Union Commission Chairman Jean Ping.

The aim of the meeting was to examine "the solutions and political issues of the Libyan crisis and to coordinate the efforts of these various organisations," Egypt`s state-run MENA news agency quoted Arab League deputy secretary general Ahmed Bin Halli as saying.

The Cairo meeting came shortly ahead of a two-day NATO gathering beginning in Berlin today and a day after the Doha talks of the `International Contact Group on Libya` during which the world leaders pledged financial support for rebels.

Ahead of the NATO meeting, Britain and France moved to exert more pressure on their allies to help defeat the Libyan regime.

The NATO meeting, for which US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had already arrived in Berlin, was part of a three-pronged push by the global community to find a solution to end the fighting in Libya and halt the growing political impasse.

While Italy and Qatar wanted the international community to consider arming Libyan rebels, Belgium opposed the idea yesterday, saying the UN resolution speaks about protecting civilians, not arming them.

In a statement, the Contact Group — formed at an international ministerial conference in London on March 29 and includes European powers, the US, allies from the Middle East and a number of international organisations — asked Gaddafi to step down.

Ahead of the Berlin meeting, British Premier David Cameron said he would "leave no stone unturned, militarily, diplomatically, politically, to enforce the UN resolution, to put real pressure on Gaddafi and to stop the appalling murder of civilians that he is still carrying out … in Misrata and elsewhere in Libya".

In the Chinese city of Sanya, India and four other emerging nations forming the BRICS grouping collectively voiced their opposition to the use of force in Libya and pitched for a central role for the United Nations and regional organisations in resolving the matter.

"We are of the view that all the parties should resolve their differences through peaceful means and dialogue in which the UN and regional organisations should as appropriate play their role," said a statement issued after the Summit of their leaders.

Libyan rebels yesterday reported more heavy fighting in Misrata, where Gaddafi`s forces have been trying to dislodge them with bombardments and street attacks for weeks, BBC said.

NATO said it had attacked munitions bunkers 13km from the Libyan capital, while Libyan TV reported other air strikes in the Libyan cities of al-Aziziya, Sirte, and Misrata.

Libya`s official JANA news agency also reported air strikes yesterday in Misrata, the country`s third-largest city; Sirte, a Gaddafi stronghold; and al-Aziziya, about 35 km south of Tripoli. JANA claimed the strike in Misrata was in an area "populated with residents."

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has warned that up to 3.6 million people in Libya may eventually require humanitarian aid, more than half of the country`s population.

US Secretary of State Clinton condemned the continued brutal attacks on the Libyan people by the forces loyal to Gaddafi in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1973.

"Regime militias and mercenaries have continued their attacks on civilians in Misrata, indiscriminately firing mortar and artillery rounds into residential areas of the city," Clinton said in a statement.

The regime has reportedly destroyed crucial food supply warehouses and cut off water and power to the city, laying siege to the Libyan people in an apparent attempt to starve them into submission, she said.

The Pentagon yesterday said that US fighter jets were still carrying out bombing raids on Libya`s air defences, despite earlier statements that the United States had halted major operations.