by our Arab Affairs correspondent

BRITISH, American and French missiles and warplanes are continuing to hit Libyan military positions in an imperialist offensive in the name of a “no fly zone,” pushed through the United Nations Security Council last week. But the air and sea bombardment is clearly aimed at saving the imperialist-backed rebels who were on the brink of total defeat.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, who was at the summit in Paris last Saturday that gave the green light to begin bombing Libya, was jeered by an angry crowd when he left a meeting at the Arab League in Cairo on Tuesday.

And many on the Arab street suspect that the real aim of the Nato powers is to replace Gaddafi with a stooge more to their liking so that they can get their greedy paws on Libya’s oil.

British Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey told the BBC this week that the air strikes were aimed at military targets but he refused to rule out the deployment of ground troops. Harvey said there was a clear distinction between sending in a full-scale occupation force — which is banned under the terms of the United Nations mandate — and a more limited intervention. But when asked how long the conflict was likely to last all he could say was: “How long is a piece of string?”.

Rallying people in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, Muammar Gaddafi said he was “ready for battle, be it long or short”. The Libyan leader has called on the people to take up arms, which are now being freely distributed at army depots across the country.

“We will win this battle,” he told supporters at his Bab Al-Aziziyah compound in Tripoli, which was the target on Sunday of a Nato missile strike. The imperialists were, he said, “a bunch of fascists who will end up in the dustbin of history”.

The Libyans say that nearly 100 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the Nato air-raids and Cruise missile attacks and one US warplane has crashed, allegedly following “mechanical failure”, near Benghazi.

Libyan ceasefire offers have been ignored and a Libyan request for an emergency session of the Security Council to halt the fighting has been rejected. But there’s increasing international opposition to the imperialist onslaught that many say goes far beyond the letter of the UN mandate.

Russia, which refused to veto the imperialists at the UN, is now leading diplomatic efforts for an immediate ceasefire.

“Russia wants to see an immediate ceasefire in Libya and the start of po litical negotiations,” Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov told visiting US Defence Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday. “We are convinced that the shortest path to the safety of peaceful civilians is through an immediate ceasefire and the start of dialogue,” he stressed.

But Nato is divided, with some European members like Germany and Turkey opposing military action, while the top imperialists themselves have not settled on their war aims. Reactionary French and British politicians are openly speculating on “mission drift” that could include sending in land forces to depose Gaddafi while the Obama administration remains, on paper, merely committed to using US aviation to provide an air umbrella for the rebels.

The White House says that Gaddafi must go but Obama’s military chiefs talk about “deadlock” in the conflict which is clearly a coded word for partition. The rebels, who fly the flag of the old pro-British monarchy, seized most of the oil-rich eastern province of Cyrenaica, including its capital Benghazi, last month. And the head of the royal family that Gaddafi overthrew in the 1969 revolution, is also the hereditary leader of the Islamic Senussi order whose traditional base was Cyrenaica.

The rebel “National Transitional Council” is, of course, not openly talking about secession. This motley crew of Gaddafi turncoats, monarchists and Muslim Brothers still hope to take over the whole country.

This week they even formed an “interim government” — which so far has only been recognised by the French. The head of this “government” is Mahmoud Jibril, a former minister and former head of Libya’s National Economic Development Board who was educated in the United States. A 2009 US diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks and written by the US ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, described Jibril as “a serious interlocutor who ‘gets’ the US perspective”.