A Libyan rebel grimaces on the front line near Sultan, south of Benghazi. (Anja Niedringhaus / Associated…)
Reporting from Tripoli, Libya, and Washington — The Libyan government declared a cease-fire Friday in its battle with rebels, but pressed in on opposition-held cities despite stern warnings from the Obama administration and a U.N. resolution authorizing military force to protect civilians.
Moammar Kadafi's government invited representatives from Malta, Germany, China and Turkey to observe the "immediate cease-fire and stoppage of all military operations" it had announced early in the day to widespread skepticism.
"The door is open to any other country who wants to send observers," Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim told reporters, pledging that the foreign officials would be able to go "everywhere."
"The cease-fire means no military operation whatsoever, big or small," Kaim said.
But U.S. officials said they had received credible reports that the violence was continuing, and news trickling out of Libya's battlefields suggested no cease-fire had taken hold. Al Jazeera television reported that Kadafi's forces were quickly advancing on the rebels' de facto capital in the east, Benghazi, and had gotten to within 30 miles of the city. Their last known positions had been around the city of Ajdabiya, 65 miles farther south.
Though phone service to Benghazi and rebel-held Misurata in western Libya were disrupted, unconfirmed amateur video broadcast on Al Jazeera showed continued fighting in Misurata, which remains under a sea, land and air blockade.
In his comments, Kaim appeared to acknowledge movement of government forces toward Benghazi.
"The armed forces are deployed outside Benghazi but there is no intention to enter the city," he said.
In a formal statement from the White House East Room, President Obama warned that the U.N. resolution passed Thursday meant that the attacks must stop.
"If Col. Kadafi does not comply with this resolution, the international community will impose consequences," Obama said. "The resolution will be enforced through military action."
Obama said that, unlike in Iraq and Afghanistan, others, including France, Britain and Arab states, will take the lead on Libya and that the U.S. would not deploy ground troops.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is to meet Saturday in Paris with European and Arab officials to further refine their military plans, a suggestion that military action may not begin immediately. But some diplomats said that if Kadafi were to begin a new assault on rebels, it might be difficult for them not to respond quickly.
Among those expected to attend the Paris meeting are French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron, representatives of at least five other European nations, the Arab League, the African Union and the United Nations.
Russia, which abstained from the Security Council vote Thursday, said its participation in the mission was "out of the question."
Sarkozy and Cameron outlined the same demands that Obama laid out Friday in his statement: that Kadafi pull back his forces, restore water and power, and allow humanitarian aid to reach rebel-held cities.
Obama said the U.S. goal would be solely protection of civilians, not a change of government — even though he had said only a week ago that Kadafi "must go." Obama cited the U.N. resolution's language, which specifies that the sole aim of the intervention is to safeguard civilians.
A no-fly zone over Libya had long been under discussion, but Obama administration officials concluded earlier this week that such a move was no longer sufficient. With the rebels retreating in the face of Kadafi's superior firepower, the Security Council voted Thursday to authorize "all necessary measures" to protect civilians, including attacks on Libyan aircraft and ground forces.
"This is about preventing the slaughter of the people in Benghazi," said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's not about regime change."
Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa acknowledged that the Security Council resolution could result in armed intervention by foreign military powers, piercing the veil of optimism that has shrouded official public discourse in Tripoli over the last few weeks.
"It's very strange and unreasonable that the Security Council would allow the use of military power, and there are signs that this might indeed take place," Kusa told reporters. "This goes clearly against the U.N. Charter and is a violation of the national sovereignty of Libya."
Kadafi has insisted for days in interviews that the entire world supports him, except for a few nations such as France and Britain.
The U.N. resolution quickly had one major effect. Eurocontrol, which monitors aviation traffic, disclosed that Libya had stopped all flights around the country, Reuters reported. Kaim said that Libya's air force has been "out of service" for the last two days.