David Cameron left isolated over 'no-fly zone' ahead of major Libya protest
David Cameron's handling of the Libya crisis was denounced as "shambolic" as tensions grew between London and Washington over the the British prime minister's suggestion that a no-fly zone could be imposed over the north African state.
The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, delivered a pointed snub to the British government when he dismissed calls to police the Libyan airspace as "loose talk", and pointed out that it would require a massive logistical exercise.
Mr Cameron surprised MPs this week when he disclosed he had asked the chief of the defence staff, General Sir David Richards, to "work with our allies on plans for a military no-fly zone".
But Mr Gates's comments left the prime minister appearing to be struggling to find international support for the step, which has already been dismissed by Russia.
Yesterday, the French foreign minister, Alain Juppe, said planning should take place for a no-fly zone, but only if it was endorsed by the UN Security Council.
US support for the establishment, and enforcement, of such a zone would be essential. But Mr Gates told a congressional panel: "There is a lot of, frankly, loose talk about some of these military options.
The US defence secretary's comments were seen as a warning that involvement in Libya could stretch even its extensive military forces, which remain heavily committed in Afghanistan.
British government sources last night played down suggestions of a diplomatic rift, adding that contacts between officials over Libya were continuing, and Mr Cameron was expected to speak to US President Barack Obama in the near future.
Mr Hague, speaking after meeting Mr Juppe in Paris yesterday, insisted that claims of divisions among world leaders over the response to Libya were overblown. He said: "This has been a remarkable period for unity in the international community."
But the deputy Labour leader, Harriet Harman, delivered the opposition's most scathing assessment to date of the government's handling of the crisis. "The response to the terrible events in Libya has been a shambles," she said.
Meanwhile, Mr Obama called on Col Muammar Gaddafi to step down, on the eve of extensive protests today intended finally to force the Libyan leader out of office.
Mr Obama attacked the Libyan regime for its sustained campaign of violence against its own people.
It also emerged last night that three Dutch marines have been detained in Libya after they were captured by forces loyal to Colonel Gaddafi while trying to rescue two Europeans.
The marines were captured on Sunday by armed men after they had gone ashore at Sirte with a helicopter from a Dutch naval vessel stationed off the coast of Libya to help with evacuations according to defence sources.