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Two Libyan rebels check vehicles crossing toward Egypt at the Egyptian-Libyan border crossing near the border town of Musaed, Libya, on March 16, 2011.Nasser Nasser

As Moammar Gadhafi's warplanes pounded rebel positions near Benghazi, the last major rebel stronghold, the great powers belatedly began consideration of a no-fly zone that could deny the repressive Libyan dictator part of the military might he has ruthlessly used to decimate the ragtag rebel army.

It may be too little, too late. Even the watered-down Anglo-French resolution faces stiff opposition from China and Russia at the UN and has little support from U.S. President Barack Obama, who would need to commit significant military assets to make it work.

If imposed, it would take days for U.S. and allied warplanes to destroy Libya's scattered surface-to-air missiles and control the skies above the vast North African nation. On Wednesday, with Benghazi residents already fleeing as the rebels retreated and Colonel Gadhafi's armoured columns of tanks and artillery closed in, outside military intervention to tip the balance against the Libyan strongman seemed unlikely.

The Libyan army issued an ultimatum to residents of Benghazi, warning them to leave rebel-held locations and weapons storage areas immediately, Libyan television reported. A text on the screen of Al-Libya television addressed inhabitants of the city, saying the army was coming "to support you and to cleanse your city from armed gangs."

But Benghazi residents poured scorn on the announcement. Several recent reports on Libyan television have not been borne out. It said on Tuesday that pro-Gaddafi masses were rallying in the city, which residents said never happened.

"This is psychological warfare," said resident Faiza Ali, contacted by telephone.

Jibril al-Huweidi, doctor at al-Jalaa Hospital in Benghazi confirmed the city was quiet.

"Some ambulances are shuttling between Benghazi and Ajdabiya," he said, referring to a city further west where loyalist and opposition forces clashed again on Wednesday.

"They could not have made it repeatedly back and forth tonight if the evil forces were closing in on Benghazi."

Col. Gaddafi himself seemed to undercut the ultimatum on his state-run Al-Libya television by telling Lebanon's LBC TV he did not expect a battle in Benghazi, where he said Libyan people have been helping get rid of "al Qaeda" elements.

In an impassioned plea to the UN Security Council, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said, "Let us save the martyred Libyan people together. Time is now counted in days, or even hours."

But Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle warned, "We do not want to get sucked into a war in North Africa and we would not like to step on a slippery slope."

With Europe divided, the United States skeptical and China and Russia opposed - both countries are veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council - there seemed little prospect of early passage of a resolution imposing an immediate no-fly zone.

Canada's Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said: "We need a viable and objective solution that can do the job," but his officials were unable to say whether the Harper government supports or opposes a no-fly zone. Canadian warplanes led scores of bombing raids against Serbs in 1999 after NATO proceeded without the legal authorization of a UN Security Council resolution in the Balkans.

The White House denied it has dithered, although the first calls for a no-fly zone were made weeks ago as the hopeful but ill-equipped rebels piled into pickup trucks and headed west toward Tripoli.

"We might have action on this no later than tomorrow," said Mr. Obama's spokesman Jay Carney. That "again demonstrates the remarkable sense of urgency that this administration has been guided by."

No-fly zones, easy to announce and expensive to impose, have, at best, a checkered history. In Bosnia, a no-fly zone failed to prevent the massacres at Srebrenica. In Kosovo, a full-blown bombing campaign was subsequently needed to dislodge Serb forces. In Iraq, more than a decade of being under a no-fly zone didn't topple Saddam Hussein and an invasion by more than 100,000 U.S. ground troops was needed in a war that lasted six years.

Only Britain and France, backed by Lebanon, the only Arab League nation currently among the 10 rotating members of the Security Council, are clearly pushing for a no-fly zone.

The 22-nation Arab League has endorsed a no-fly zone but whether Arab warplanes would deploy and fly missions remains in doubt.

"Russia remains categorically opposed to any foreign intervention, particularly military intervention, in Libyan affairs," said Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the great powers would consider a range of options. "The no-fly zone is one of them but it's not the only one. There are other actions that need to be also evaluated," she said.

Col. Gadhafi's son Saif al-Islam laughed off the threats. In two days, forces loyal to the regime will be in Benghazi, he said.

Ahmed Omar, a rebel commander in the fast-emptying eastern city, denounced the world for standing by after the Obama administration and others had cheered pro-democracy uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world.

"The international community has failed us," Mr. Omar said by phone.

Some praised Mr. Obama's reticence. "Why is anyone so sure that the people we'd be helping, that they would necessarily be dramatically better than Gadhafi?" said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

But a growing chorus of senior U.S. senators demanded action, despite the overstretch of the American military in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"One test in foreign policy - at least be as bold as the French," said South Carolina's Republican Senator Lindsey Graham acidly. "When it comes to Libya, we're failing that test."

The Obama administration - perhaps keenly aware that while others may loudly call for warplanes to police Libyan skies, it will be U.S. aircraft and U.S. pilots shouldering most of the load - wants to keep step with, but not lead, any international intervention.

With a report from Reuters