The European Union's response to Muammar Gaddafi's onslaught against dissident forces was in disarray last night as France struck out on its own to recognise Libyan rebels as the country's legitimate government.
Foreign ministers responded with a mixture of anger and dismay after the announcement by Nicolas Sarkozy following attempts by the EU to present a united front by rubber-stamping a new package of sanctions targeting the country's financial assets.
Most EU nations appeared to distance themselves from France with the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle saying that Sarkozy appeared to have acted “on a whim”.
British sources also made it clear that they were wary of following suit. One said: “We are going to take it step by step. Our approach is that we're keen to speak to all sides and develop our contacts with opposition figures.”
The confusion at a special meeting in Brussels to discuss Libya came as rebel fighters were forced to retreat from the strategic town of Ras Lanuf after a sustained artillery and air attack. The rebel forces fled alongside the the town's few remaining residents at the approach of regime troops and tanks.
As he drove away in a Toyota pick-up truck, volunteer fighter Rahim Mastri (22) said: “There was nothing to be gained by staying there, we would have been killed. They have got heavier guns and we cannot match them.”
The rebel forces headed back east towards Benghazi, the capital of ‘Free Libya’, amid growing concerns among the rebel forces that Colonel Gaddafi's forces could reverse early rebel gains during the last weeks of fighting and close in on their stronghold.
Senior officers blamed a lack of communication and organisation for the defeat. “There has been no planning, no defences set up, so Gaddafi's men could just come in,” said Captain Ahmed Ibadullah, a former Libyan army officer who defected to the revolution. “We now need to regroup and see what we can do.” The regime also appeared to be in control of the key battleground of Zawiya, the most westerly of the towns that has appeared within the grasp of the anti-Gaddafi forces.
But the victory — at least for now — reportedly came at the cost of dozens of casualties and serious damage to buildings in the centre.
In Tripoli Saif Gaddafi, the Libyan leader's son, ended an hour-long speech to a noisy and excitable youth conference with a warning to the armed ‘gangs’ that “we are coming to you”.
Mr Gaddafi listed a string of atrocities which he said had been committed by the rebels in eastern Libya and ridiculed the presence of a British warship in waters outside Benghazi.
“The Libyan people are facing genocide, the annihilation of an entire population through the use of air power and heavy artillery,” Hafiz Ghoga, a spokesman for the rebel leadership, told Reuters.
After early optimism of sweeping away the 42-year dictatorship was replaced by growing awareness that outside help was needed to replace the entrenched regime, the rebel leadership has called for a no-fly zone and airstrikes against the Gaddafi regime .
However, the European response descended into bickering last night as clear divisions emerged over plans for a no-fly zone between the partners.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague claimed one could be established “very, very quickly” after Britain and France had done the work at the United Nations Security Council to prepare a resolution and Nato was planning practical steps to be taken.
But Germany opposed a no-fly zone. “We do not want to get sucked into a war in North Africa,” said Mr Westerwelle. The US, which would play a major role in policing any no-fly zone, has been lukewarm at best about attempts to impose one.