WASHINGTON // As countries scrambled to evacuate their citizens from Libya yesterday, world powers were either unwilling or unable to intervene and stop violence that appears to be spiralling out of control.
Despite strong condemnations from the US and the UN, any concrete international action is yet to materialise.
Suggestions that Nato, the European military alliance that includes the US, should impose a no-fly zone over the country have yet to gain momentum and threats of sanctions against the country and its leadership remain rhetorical.
Nato's leadership stressed yesterday it would not intervene without a request from the UN, which analysts say would face Security Council opposition from Russia and China on any plans that involved military force.
Although the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's regime seems almost immune to the kind of diplomatic and economic pressure available to the international community in Tunisia and Egypt, there has been little discussion, at least in public, about any direct intervention, including military action.
While government officials from around the world insisted that all options were on the table, analysts warned that urgent and forceful measures would be needed soon to stop the violence from getting out of hand.
The fighting showed no sign of abating yesterday. Forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi were reported to have attacked anti-government protesters who seized the western city of Misrata.
The government offensive came as forces loyal to the Libyan regime appeared increasingly isolated. Anti-government protesters had reportedly seized control over much of the east and two main cities in the west of the country.
Reports yesterday suggested that pro and anti-government forces were fighting for control of Zawiyah, just 50km west of Tripoli, Libya's capital and Colonel Qaddafi's stronghold.
All southern oilfields were also said to be in rebel hands, with the violence virtually wiping out the nation's oil exports, according to the head of Italy's ENI, Libya's biggest foreign oil operator. Libya pumps nearly 2 per cent of the world's oil supply and oil prices rose to about US$120 a barrel yesterday, increasing concerns about the global economic recovery.
In Tripoli, reports suggested an uneasy calm, with pro-government forces still controlling the streets. But William Hague, the British foreign secretary, suggested to the BBC that the odds on Colonel Qaddafi's political survival were worsening, and urged a stronger international response.
Any concerted international action still appears some way off, however. The US presient, Barack Obama, on Wednesday strongly condemned the violence in Libya as "outrageous", "unacceptable" and in violation of "international norms and every standard of common decency" in his first remarks on the crisis, but he stopped short of calling on Col Qaddafi to resign and did not announce any specific US measures.
In what has become a standard US response to the unrest that has gripped the region in the past months, the US leader asserted American support for the rights of people to peaceful assembly and free speech, but he said the issue of leadership was one for the Libyan people to make.
He also said the main US priority was evacuating its citizens from Libya. The US has chartered a ferry to take American citizens and embassy staff to Malta after being denied a request to bring a charter aircraft to Tripoli.
There was some suggestion that the US was waiting to evacuate its citizens before taking a stronger position.
In Brussels, Reuters reported that the European Union was weighing a range of options to evacuate its 5,000 to 6,000 citizens, and quoted an unnamed EU official as saying one possibility was a military humanitarian intervention force.
Britain also was mulling sending special forces to evacuate its citizens, but international efforts are so far directed at protecting its citizens rather than ending the bloodshed in Libya.
Some analysts suggest that the international community cannot delay taking firmer action to prevent the violence spiralling out of control.
Anouar Boukhars, professor of Middle East and North Africa studies at McDaniel College in Maryland, said: "The appropriate model [for an international response] is no longer Tunisia or Egypt. Now we are looking at a Bosnia or a Kosovo."
Professor Boukhars said the international community needed to take "creative and bold" action, starting with imposing a no-fly zone and encouraging defections from the Libyan Army by vowing to hold individuals responsible for any atrocities.
Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary general, said on Wednesday those "responsible for brutally shedding the blood of innocents must be punished". But decisions on such legally binding issues are taken by the UN Security Council, where the chances of a formal resolution are limited. Direct international intervention would have to come under the aegis of the UN, where the legal framework for such intervention exists. In 2005, UN member nations agreed to the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which stipulated that if a government failed to protect its own people from crimes against humanity, the UN was responsible for taking action, including the "collective use of force".
Any attempt to invoke the doctrine now, however, would probably meet determined opposition from China and Russia, both security council members. The council is expected to meet again on Libya in coming days, but UN analysts, such as Jeffrey Laurenti from the Century Foundation, a New York think tank, said the body would move slowly and that tougher action was unlikely.
"An internal political upheaval inside Libya from a megalomaniacal leader is unlikely to be seen as a threat to international peace and security, so forceful action against a nasty government by the outside world is probably not going to come through the UN," Mr Laurenti said.
With the African Union an unlikely source of intervention and the Arab League largely toothless, Nato remains the most able international body to intervene. But without a UN directive, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Nato secretary general, made clear yesterday that would not happen.
"I would like to stress that Nato has no plans to intervene and we have not received any request," Mr Rasmussen said after talks with the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev.
"In any case, any action should be based on a clear United Nations mandate."
Mr Boukhars conceded that it would be difficult to secure widespread international support for any direct action. But if the conflict became all-out civil war, the notion of humanitarian intervention had to be on the table, he said.
An escalation in the fighting is almost certain.
"The problem is, there is going to be a winner and loser here. The protesters can't go home.
"If they do, they will be killed. Qaddafi and those around him probably understand that if they give up, the repercussions are going to be severe."
* With additional reporting by James Reinl at the United Nations