In a sign of the mounting frustration by rebel leaders at Col. Muammar Qadhafi's diminished but unyielding grip on power, the revolutionary council here is seriously considering asking Western nations to use warplanes to strike some of the colonel's key military assets, while insisting that such air-raids fly under a U.N. banner, according to four people with knowledge of the council's deliberations.

By invoking the United Nations, the council, made up lawyers, academics, judges and other prominent figures, is seeking to draw a distinction between the airstrikes and foreign intervention, which the rebels say they emphatically oppose.

“He destroyed the army. We have two or three planes,” said Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, the council's spokesman, speaking of the rebel's military disadvantage.

He refused to comment on the council's deliberations or any imminent announcement, but said: “If it is with the United Nations, it is not a foreign intervention.” But that distinction is lost on many people, and any call for foreign military help carries great risks. The anti-government protesters in Libya, like their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, have drawn broad popular support and great pride from their status as home-grown movements that toppled autocrats without outside help. And an intervention, with or without the U.N. stamp, could play into the hands of Qadhafi, who has called the uprising a foreign plot by Western powers seeking to occupy Libya.

“If he falls with no intervention, I'd be happy,” said one senior council official. “But if he's going to commit a massacre, my priority is to save my people.”

‘Doing this themselves'

There was no indication that the Security Council members would approve such a request, or that Libyans seeking to topple Qadhafi would welcome it: Russia has dismissed talk of a no-fly zone to curb Qadhafi's still-active air-force, and China has traditionally voted against foreign intervention.

Even so, the discussions signalled a rebel movement both impatient with a military stalemate that has crippled the country, and out of good options. Those who support the airstrikes hope they might dislodge Qadhafi from crucial strongholds, including a fortified compound in the capital, Tripoli. The council is only considering strikes against the compound, Bab al-Aziziya and assets like radar stations, according to the people briefed on the discussions, who requested anonymity because no formal decision on the announcement has been made.

The discussions came as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned of the perception that western nations were interfering in Libyan affairs. Speaking to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 1, Ms Clinton laid out one of the several reasons western countries are moving with caution on the possibility of a no-fly zone, which she said was “under active consideration.” The Obama administration, she said, was keenly aware that the Libyan opposition was anxious to be seen “as doing this by themselves on behalf of the Libyan people that there not be outside intervention by any external force.”

At the same time, Qadhafi faced a growing international campaign to force him from power, as the U.N. General Assembly voted on March 1 to suspend Libya's membership on the Human Rights Council, following its bloody attacks on protesters. The Obama administration announced it had seized $30 billion in Libyan assets, and the European Union adopted an arms embargo and other sanctions.

As the Pentagon began repositioning U.S. Navy warships to support a possible humanitarian or military intervention, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations promised, on March 2, to maintain that pressure until the embattled Libyan leader quits.

“We are going to keep the pressure on Qadhafi until he steps down and allows the people of Libya to express themselves freely and determine their own future,” the envoy, Susan Rice, said in an interview on “Good Morning America.”

Qadhafi defiant

Qadhafi has remained defiant. In an interview on March 1 with ABC News, he said he was fighting against “terrorists,” and he accused the West of seeking to “occupy Libya.” Those unyielding words and the colonel's military attacks were met with both nerves and defiance by rebel military leaders as the two sides seemed to steel themselves for a long battle along shifting and ever more violent front lines.

The anti-government protesters, who started their uprising with peaceful sit-ins but have increasingly turned to arms to counter Qadhafi's brutal paramilitary forces, have promised a large military response that has yet to come. At the same time, government forces have been unable to reverse the costly loss of territory to a popular revolt that has brought together lawyers, young people and tribal leaders.

Workers' plight

Libya itself seemed to be brewing a major humanitarian crisis as tens of thousands of mostly impoverished contract workers tried desperately to flee to its neighbours, Tunisia to the west and Egypt to the east. The U.N. refugee agency called the situation a humanitarian emergency as workers hauling suitcases stood in long lines to leave Libya, many of them uncertain how they would finally get home.

For days, military leaders in Benghazi have said they are preparing to assemble a force of thousands to conduct a final assault on Tripoli; some of the officials have even promised to send planes to bomb Qadhafi's fortified compound, Bab al-Aziziya.

But there are few signs that a plan has materialised, though military leaders maintain they are simply waiting for the right time. (Robert F. Worth contributed reporting from Benghazi, Brian Knowlton from Washington, Alan Cowell from Paris, Steven Lee Myers from Geneva, and Liam Stack from Cairo.)— © New York Times News Service

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