CAIRO — The Arab League asked the U.N. Security Council Saturday to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians from air attack by forces of Moammar Gadhafi's embattled government, giving crucial backing to a key demand of the rebel forces battling to oust the Libyan leader.
Foreign ministers from the 22-member Arab bloc, meeting in Cairo, also left the Libyan leader of more than 40 years increasingly isolated, declaring his government had "lost its sovereignty."
They also appeared to confer legitimacy on the rebel's interim government, the National Libyan Council, saying they would establish contacts with the umbrella group and calling on nations to provide it with "urgent help."
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"The Arab League asks the United Nations to shoulder its responsibility ... to impose a no-fly zone over the movement of Libyan military planes and to create safe zones in the places vulnerable to airstrikes," said a league statement released after the emergency session.
League Secretary-General Amr Moussa stressed in remarks afterward that a no-fly zone was intended as a humanitarian measure to protect Libyan civilians and foreigners in the country and not as a military intervention.
That stance appeared meant to win over the deeply Arab nationalist government of Syria, which has smarted against foreign intervention into Arab affairs.Video: Gadhafi forces pound rebels with heavy gunfire (on this page)
The Arab League cannot impose a no-fly zone itself. But the approval of the key regional Arab body gives the U.S. and other Western powers crucial regional backing they say they need before doing so. Many were wary that Western powers would be seen as intervening in the affairs of an Arab country if they began a no-fly zone without Arab approval.
Still, the Obama administration has said a no-fly zone may have limited impact, and the international community is divided over the issue.
Backing the rebels' political leadership, the league statement said it had faced "grievous violations and serious crimes by the Libyan authorities, which have lost their sovereignty."
The league's decision comes hours before the European Union's policy chief is set to arrive in Cairo to meet with the Arab bloc's leaders to discuss the situation in Libya.Story: Al-Jazeera says cameraman killed in eastern Libya
Catherine Ashton said she hoped to discuss a "collaborative approach" with Arab League chief Moussa on Libya and the rest of the region.
Ashton said it was necessary to evaluate how effective economic sanctions imposed on Gadhafi's regime had been so far and that she was "keeping all options moving forward" regarding any additional measures.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle welcomed the EU's "very cautious" stance on possible military intervention.
"We do not want to be drawn into a war in north Africa — we should have learned from the events in and surrounding Iraq," Westerwelle said.
"It is very important that the impression doesn't arise that this is a conflict of the West against the Arab world or a Christian crusade against people of Muslim faith."
Al-Jazeera said Saturday that a cameraman for the pan-Arab satellite station had been killed near the eastern city of Benghazi.
It was the first death of a journalist since the Libyan uprising began Jan. 15.
The station identified the slain journalist as Ali Hassan al-Jaber but did not specify his nationality. It said he was killed in what it called an "armed ambush" on an Al-Jazeera crew in the Hawari area near Benghazi, which is the headquarters of the rebellion.
The station said a correspondent was also wounded. It did not say who it thought was behind the attack.
Gadhafi tightened his grip Saturday on the coastal road linking his territory to the rebel-controlled east, pushing forward the front line in Libya's grueling internal conflict and showing off control of devastated towns just seized from the opposition.
The Libyan government took reporters by plane and bus to the town of Bin Jawwad, the scene of brutal battles six days ago between insurgents and Gadhafi loyalists using artillery, rockets and helicopter gunships.
A police station was completely destroyed, its windows shattered, walls blackened and burned and broken furniture inside. A nearby school had gaping holes in the roof and a wall. Homes nearby were empty and cars were overturned or left as charred hulks in the road.
Rubble filled the streets and a sulphurous smell hung in the air.
The tour continued in Ras Lanouf, an oil port of boxy, sand-colored buildings with satellite dishes on top.
The area was silent and devoid of any sign of life, with laundry still fluttering on lines strung across balconies. About 50 soldiers or militia members in 10 white Toyota pickups, holding up portraits of Gadhafi, smeared with mud as camouflage guarded it. A playground was strewn with bullet casings and medical supplies looted from a nearby pharmacy whose doors had been shot open.
The defeat at Ras Lanouf, which had been captured by rebels a week ago and only fell after days of fierce fighting and shelling, was a major setback for opposition forces who just a week ago held the entire eastern half of the country and were charging toward the capital.
A massive column of black smoke billowed from Ras Lanouf's blazing oil refinery. A Libyan colonel asserted the rebels had detonated it as they retreated.
Gen. Abdel-Fattah Younis, the country's interior minister before defecting, told The Associated Press that Gadhafi's forces had driven deeper into rebel territory than at any time since the opposition seized control of the east.
He said they were about 50 miles (77 kilometers) past Ras Lanouf and about 25 miles (40 kilometers) outside Brega, the site of a major oil terminal.
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