CAIRO — The Arab League called on the U.N. Security Council on Saturday to immediately impose a no-fly zone over Libya and announced that it was recognizing the rebel movement as that country’s legitimate government.
The move could significantly raise pressure on the United States and European nations to act in response to the conflict that has erupted in recent weeks as rebels have seized half of Libya and Col. Moammar Gaddafi’s security forces have struck back with massive firepower. NATO has said an Arab endorsement of the no-fly zone was a precondition for taking such action.
Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa announced the league’s decision in Cairo on Saturday evening, describing the no fly-zone as a “preventive measure” whose chief goal is to “protect Libyan citizens.”
“The main priority right now is to stop the deadly situation,” Moussa said.
In a statement, the White House said Saturday that “we welcome this important step by the Arab League, which strengthens the international pressure on Gaddafi and support for the Libyan people.”
“The international community is unified in sending a clear message that the violence in Libya must stop, and that the Gaddafi regime must be held accountable,” the statement said. “The United States will continue to advance our efforts to pressure Gaddafi, to support the Libyan opposition, and to prepare for all contingencies, in close coordination with our international partners.”
The Arab League’s decision came after 51 / 2 hours of closed-door deliberations by the foreign ministers of 21 nations. Representatives of Gaddafi’s government, which the league had suspended this month as a member, were not invited.
Addressing a packed news conference at the league’s headquarters, Moussa also said the Arab League would begin working immediately with an interim council established by rebels in the eastern city of Benghazi.
To buttress their extraordinary request for international military action against one of their own members, the ministers issued as statement saying the measure was also needed to “maintain the safety and sovereignty of neighboring nations.”
In declaring Gaddafi’s regime illegitimate, Moussa referred to a section of the statement that cited “the fatal violations and serious crimes at the hands of Libyan authorities that make [the government] illegal.”
Moussa, who this week declared he would run for president of Egypt, seemed determined at the briefing to avoid describing the no-fly zone in military terms, although such an operation could require aircraft enforcing the zone to engage Libyan aircraft in combat.
Gaddafi is just one of the autocratic leaders who have become targets of popular uprisings throughout the region. But taking action against him does not open the door to other military intercession, said Oman’s foreign minister, Yusuf bin Alawi Abdullah, who joined Moussa at the briefing.
“We refuse any foreign intervention in any Arab affairs,” he said when asked whether the resolution could be applied to other Arab states.
Outside the league’s headquarters on Tahrir Square, Egyptians and Libyans waved signs describing Gaddafi as a genocidal butcher and displaying grisly photos of dead Libyans. But they also expressed wariness about any Western military involvement in the conflict. “We are not calling for American intervention,” said Omar Mohamed, a 21-year-old student. “But they should give weapons to the rebel fighters.”
Officials of Libya’s so-called government in waiting welcomed the Arab League’s endorsement of a no-fly zone and said they hoped the United States and other Western powers will follow, adding pressure on the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone. Western powers have stressed they would not take military action unless they had the approval of Libya’s neighbors.
“We hope the Europeans will deliver now. This changes things a lot,” said Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the Libyan National Council, the provisional leadership running eastern Libya. “We hope it will change the American position, but most of all the European position.”
Abdul Hafidh Ghoga, vice chairman of the Libyan National Council, said that if a no-fly zone is imposed, the rebels will prevail over Gaddafi’s forces. But he warned that if Western powers do not take military action, the rebels were prepared to purchase more weapons from other countries to protect their revolution.
“If the international community chooses to play the role of bystander, with Libyan cities being destroyed and Libyan people being killed, then we will have to defend ourselves on our own,” Ghoga said. “If no steps are taken, we have to take the decision to arm ourselves as best as we can.”
Ghoga said the rebels have made contacts with other nations that might provide them with weapons, if needed, although he declined to name those countries.
Staff writer Scott Wilson in Washington and correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan in Benghazi contributed to this report.