Moving swiftly in response to a request by Arab nations, the U.N. Security Council on Thursday paved the way for international air strikes against Muammar Qadhafi’s forces with its vote authorizing military action to protect civilians and a no-fly zone over Libya.

The council acted five days after the Arab League urged the U.N.’s most powerful body to try to halt Qadhafi’s advancing military and reverse the realities on the ground, where rebels and their civilian supporters are in danger of being crushed by pro-government forces using rockets, artillery, tanks and warplanes.

The vote was 10-0 with five countries abstaining including Russia and China, which have veto power in the council, along with India, Germany and Brazil. Russia and China expressed concern about the United Nations and other outside powers using force against Qadhafi, and Germany expressed fear that military action would lead to more casualties.

The United States - which in a dramatic reversal joined the resolution’s initial supporters Britain, France and Lebanon - not only helped push for a quick vote but pressed for action beyond creation of a no-fly zone to protect civilians from air, land and sea attacks by Qadhafi’s fighters.

“This council moved with remarkable speed in response to the great urgency of the situation on the ground,” U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said. “This resolution should send a strong message to Colonel Qadhafi and his regime that the violence must stop, the killing must stop, and the people of Libya must be protected and have the opportunity to express themselves freely.”

The resolution bans all flights in Libya’s airspace to help protect civilians. It also authorizes U.N. member states to take “all necessary measures ... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.”

U.S. officials said the resolution provides a strong legal base for enforcing the no-fly zone and for countries to carry out air and sea strikes against Qadhafi’s forces.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Tunisia on Thursday, that a U.N. no-fly zone over Libya would require action to protect the planes and pilots, “including bombing targets like the Libyan defence systems.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the three criteria for taking action - a demonstrated need, clear legal basis and broad regional support - all have been fulfilled.

“This places a responsibility on members of the United Nations, and that is a responsibility to which the United Kingdom will now respond,” he said.

Libya’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi, whose support for the opposition spurred many Libyan diplomats around the world to demand Qadhafi’s ouster, called on the world to respond “immediately.”

“The lives of the civilians are in danger right now and I expect the international community to move quickly,” he said.

Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said with the “strong legal base,” Britain and a number of other countries in NATO and a number of Arab League countries “will be looking to implement those measures.” Diplomats said Arab countries likely to participate in possible strikes include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

In Britain, a lawmaker with knowledge of defence matters confirmed that British forces were on standby for air strikes and could be mobilized as soon as Thursday night. The lawmaker declined to be named because the Defence Ministry has not issued official confirmation.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon told France-2 Television that France would support military action against Qadhafi within a matter of hours after the resolution was approved.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the council had taken “an historic decision” to protect civilians from violence perpetrated by their own government. “Given the critical situation on the ground, I expect immediate action on the resolution’s provisions,” he said.

Immediately before the vote, France’s Foreign Minister Alain Juppe urged adoption of the resolution saying sanctions imposed by the Security Council on February 26 aren’t enough and “violence against the civilian population has been redoubled.”

“We have very little time left. It’s a matter of days. It’s perhaps a matter of hours. We should not arrive too late,” he said.

In the opposition capital Benghazi, Al-Jazeera satellite TV channel showed a large crowd watching the vote on an outdoor TV projection burst into celebration when the resolution was approved as green and red fireworks exploded in the air.

The resolution came hours after Qadhafi went on Libyan television and vowed to crush the rebellion with a final assault on Benghazi.

In an interview broadcast just before the vote, Qadhafi said, “The U.N. Security Council has no mandate. We don’t acknowledge their resolutions.” He pledged to respond harshly to U.N.-sponsored attacks. “If the world is crazy, we will be crazy too,” he told the Portuguese public Radiotelevisao Portuguesa.

But Libya’s Dabbashi said the council’s action will make “the people of Benghazi ... feel safe from this time on.”

“It is a clear message to the Libyan people that they are not alone, that the international community is with them and is going to help them to protect themselves,” he said. “It is also a clear message to Col. Qadhafi and those who are supporting him that there is no place for dictatorship, there is no place for killing the people.”

The resolution also calls for stronger enforcement of the arms embargo, adds names of people, companies and other entities to the list of those subject to travel bans and asset freezes, and requires all countries to ban Libyan flights from landing, taking off or overflying their country.

It also demands that Libya ensure the “rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian assistance” and asks U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to establish an eight-member panel of experts to assist the Security Council committee in monitoring sanctions.

Russia and China had expressed doubts about the United Nations and other outside powers using force against Gadhafi, a view backed by India, Brazil and Germany who also abstained.

Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Peter Wittig expressed fear that using military force could lead to “the likelihood of large-scale loss of life.”

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