Some NATO countries are drawing up contingency plans modeled on the no-fly zones over the Balkans in the 1990s in case the international community decides to impose an air embargo over Libya, diplomats said Wednesday.
NATO has already said that any such move would require a clear mandate from the U.N. Security Council. This is unlikely because Russia, which has veto power in the council, has already rejected the idea.
Still, diplomats at NATO and the European Union said some countries, including United States and Britain, are already drawing up contingency plans to prevent Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's air force from carrying out air strikes against the rebels.
"When you are faced with very fast moving events like this you need to plan, to try and anticipate," said Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
"You need to look at every contingency measure and that is exactly what we have done .... including on the issue of a no-fly zone," he said after meeting with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
He underscored that such move would be a huge undertaking.
"Clearly this is not something we would do on our own. Clearly there are legal issues. It is a very very large country," Clegg said.
Germany, however, warned that the military alliance should not play into Gadhafi's claims that the West was again meddling in Arab affairs by fomenting the revolt.
"I would advise that we conduct the debate ... about military options with all the appropriate caution and reserve," Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Wednesday in Berlin.
On Wednesday, Libyan warplanes bombed an ammunition depot on the outskirts of the rebel-held eastern town of Ajdabiya, 85 miles (140 kilometers) south of Benghazi. The air force has launched repeated airstrikes during the two-week revolt, but all of them appear to have targeted weapons depots in areas controlled by the rebellion.
The diplomats, who could not be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, said the options being looked into are modeled on the no-fly zone which the Western military alliance imposed over Bosnia in 1993 that had a U.N. mandate.
They also cited NATO's aerial offensive against Yugoslavia in 1999 _ which did not have the U.N. Security Council mandate _ in response to the crackdown on ethnic Albanian nationalists in Kosovo. The onslaught ended after 78 days with Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic agreeing to withdraw his forces from Kosovo.
"Very clearly there are such discussions going on and contingency plans are being worked on, but there is no decision yet," said a senior EU official who also declined to be identified.
But he noted that taking control of the airspace over Libya would more likely be modeled on Operation Deny Flight, a 1993-95 NATO mission in which its warplanes patrolled the skies over Bosnia as a civil war raged between government forces and Serb secessionists.
NATO planes mostly operated from air bases in Italy and from carriers in the Adriatic Sea and the Mediterranean. Many of those bases, and those in Spain, Crete and Cyprus, could be used for a potential air mission over Libya.
During Deny Flight's 33-month duration, NATO flew over 100,000 sorties. Roughly half were carried out by fighters and attack jets, and the others by transports, reconnaissance planes and aerial tankers. Four Serbian fighter-bombers were shot down during the operation.
The best-known incident of the operation occurred the same year, when Serb anti-aircraft fire downed a U.S. Air Force F-16. The pilot, Capt. Scott F. O'Grady, was rescued six days later.
"In the Balkans, (the operation) had important results: it prevented Milosevic's planes from bombing unarmed populations," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told the Il Messaggero newspaper in Rome. "I believe it could be successful also in Libya, because it would prevent bombing ... areas taken from Gadhafi's control."
If the international community imposes a no-fly zone over Libya it would pit the country's disintegrating air force against the vastly superior air fleets of Western nations.
Although Libya has over 400 fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships, analysts say the number of airworthy aircraft is much smaller. The Libyan military has been in disarray for a long time, and the air force in particular is said to suffer from low morale, declining training standards and poor maintenance.
In contrast, NATO's air assets in the region are extensive and robust. The several hundred fighter jets available in NATO's southern nations and on the U.S. carriers could quickly establish air dominance over Libya, experts say.
"Setting up a no-fly zone would be fairly easy, it's the kind of thing NATO could put together in a few hours," said Robert Hunter, who was U.S. ambassador to NATO at the time of he Balkan wars.
"The only real question is whether the people of Arab countries will oppose the intervention of Western powers. Will the operation backfire, will it provoke accusations of neocolonialism?" he said.
AP reporter Geir Moulson in Berlin and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.