The Arab League threw its support behind calls for a no-fly zone over Libya on Saturday as the Libyan military closed in on the opposition.
The League urged the United Nations to close Libyan airspace, as forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi continued using war planes to bombard the country's rebels.
"The Arab League has officially requested the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone against any military action against the Libyan people," said Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, adding that the no-fly zone should be ended when the crisis was over.
Approval from the 22-member organization, which met Saturday in Cairo, could pave the way for military action against Gadhafi by Western forces.
The League said it rejected any "foreign military" intervention against the Libyan people and it had opened contact with the rebel Libyan National Council.
Earlier in the week, leaders including NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said they would consider imposing a no-fly zone only with support from Libya's Arab neighbors.
Moussa said Saturday that the "serious crimes and great violations" of the Libyan government against its people had stripped it of legitimacy.
"The United Nations, the Arab League, the African Union, the Europeans - everyone should participate [in action against Gadhafi]," Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa told German news magazine Der Spiegel.
Rebel forces have repeatedly asked the international community to impose a no-fly zone to stop Gadhafi's air strikes, without which they say their three-week insurgency could fail.
Rebels hit hard
Meanwhile on Saturday, Gadhafi's forces were reportedly within striking distance of Libya's second city, the opposition stronghold of Benghazi. Earlier in the day, they retook the northern oil town of Ras Lanuf earlier in the day.
The fall of the city was confirmed by former Libyan Interior Minister Gen. Abdul Fateh Younis, who defected to the rebel side.
"The rebel forces, who for weeks rapidly advanced on the capital Tripoli in a bid to oust Gadhafi, are loosing steam to the better armed government forces," news network Al Jazeera reported from Brega, where Gadhafi's troops had also invaded.
Younis vowed that the rebels would launch a counter-offensive by Sunday at the latest.
On Friday, Western leaders vowed to consider military action to force out Gadhafi, though there was no commitment to a no-fly zone.
European Union leaders meeting in Brussels said they would consider all options to remove Gadhafi, but stopped short of endorsing air strikes, a no-fly zone or other military-backed means to achieve that goal.
The summit did not decide on a British and French initiative for a UN Security Council resolution to authorize a no-fly zone. It also did not consider French President Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal for "defensive" air strikes against Libya or his call to follow France in recognizing the rebel National Libyan Council as the Libya's only legitimate authority.
US President Barack Obama said on Friday the United States and its allies were "tightening the noose" around Gaddafi and added that he had "not taken any options off the table."
Author: David Levitz (AFP, AP, dpa, PTI, Reuters)
Editor: Sean Sinico