WASHINGTON — The United States and its European allies are considering the use of naval assets to deliver humanitarian aid to Libya and to block arms shipments to the government of Moammar Gadhafi, even as they weigh the legality of imposing a no-fly zone without United Nations authorization, the Washington Post reported Tuesday, citing unnamed U.S. and European officials.
NATO military officials began briefing governments Tuesday night on a range of options that will be presented to defense ministers in Brussels on Thursday.
The Obama administration, NATO and other organizations are united in their belief that any intervention in Libya would require international backing. But with a U.N. mandate far from assured, those considering intervention — including the United States, Britain, France and Italy — are looking for alternative support, the Washington Post reported, citing officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The officials, saying international support could come from regional blocs, said NATO's air attacks on Serbia in 1999 came without U.N. backing.
The intense international deliberations came as troops loyal to Gadhafi continued to besiege the rebel-held city of Zawiya, 30 miles west of Tripoli, for a fifth day on Tuesday, with rebel officials there citing a mounting toll of dozens dead and hundreds wounded, including women and children.
In Ras Lanouf, about 400 miles east of the capital, Gadhafi loyalists were engaged in fierce fighting with rebels who had hoped to march on Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown and a strategically vital city that lies on the main road to Tripoli.
Gadhafi made a surprise appearance at a hotel hosting foreign correspondents in Tripoli, arriving before midnight, the Associated Press reported. He raised his fist in the air as he walked from his car to the hotel, then went into a room for about an hour before leaving without speaking to reporters.
As they weighed the prospect of intervention, the Obama administration and European governments continued efforts to size up the Libyan opposition. France and Italy said they were in conversations with opposition figures, and the State Department said it had held face-to-face meetings and phone conversations in Rome and Cairo with members of the National Transitional Council in Benghazi in eastern Libya.
"We're talking to others beyond the membership of this council," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "Eventually, you know, within Libya a formal opposition will emerge. We're watching to see how that develops."
The administration has chosen not to step out in front in advocating military intervention, even as it has come under criticism by some congressional leaders who have pressed for a more robust response.
U.S. military planners and those from other NATO governments have prepared a range of alternatives, including the establishment of an air or naval bridge or both to carry humanitarian supplies or escort civilian ships into Benghazi and other rebel-held areas, as well as close-in naval patrols along the Libyan coast to monitor an existing arms embargo.
The proposed naval actions would not require a U.N. resolution. But governments are divided on both the advisability and the legality of a no-fly zone.
In Benghazi, the opposition council denied reports that Gadhafi had offered, through a third party, to give up power if he was allowed to leave the country.