Clinton Hague
© The Guardian
Hillary Clinton and William Hague claim arming rebel groups may be legal under the recent UN resolution

The US and Britain have raised the prospect of arming Libya's rebels if air strikes fail to force Muammar Gaddafi from power.

At the end of a conference on Libya in London, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said for the first time that she believed arming rebel groups was legal under UN security council resolution 1973, passed two weeks ago, which also provided the legal justification for air strikes.

America's envoy to the UN, Susan Rice, said earlier the US had "not ruled out" channelling arms to the rebels.

The British foreign secretary, William Hague, agreed that the resolution made it legal "to give people aid in order to defend themselves in particular circumstances".

The west's main Arab ally, Qatar, also said providing weapons to Gaddafi's opponents should be considered if air strikes failed to dislodge him. The Gulf state's prime minister, Sheikh Hamad Al-Thani, said the effect of air strikes would have to be evaluated in a few days, but added: "We cannot let the people suffer for too long."

A prolonged conflict appeared more likely after pro-Gaddafi forces launched a powerful counterattack against Libyan rebelstoday, sending the revolutionaries fleeing from towns they had taken only two days earlier.

Mahmoud Shammam, a spokesman for the rebel interim national council (INC) said the insurgents lacked weapons. "We don't have arms at all, otherwise we would finish Gaddafi in a few days. We ask for the political support more than we are asking for the arms. But if we get both that would be great."

However, the French and the Italians disagreed with Washington and London's interpretation of the UN resolution.

Asked about the possibility of arming the rebels, the French foreign minister, Alain Juppé said: "It is not part of the UN resolutions, but we are ready to discuss it with our partners."

French and Italian officials said the issue had been discussed at the conference in London, contradicting US and British assurances to the contrary.

There appeared to be greater consensus on offering Gaddafi a way out of the conflict through exile, with Italy leading the way in seeking a haven prepared to accept the Libyan leader.

The UK was not looking for somewhere for him to go, said Hague. "That doesn't exclude other countries from doing so."

Clinton said the UN's special envoy to Libya, Abdul Ilah Khatib, was due in Tripoli soon to explore "a political solution that could involve [Gaddafi] leaving the country".

The INC was not formally invited to the London conference, and has only been recognised so far by France and Qatar. However, it emerged from the conference with its status enhanced.

The group was allowed to use the Foreign Office's official briefing room to launch its political manifesto, A Vision of a Democratic Libya, which diplomats distributed on its behalf.

Shammam said Clinton herself had "just stopped short of recognition," but had dispatched a senior US diplomat, Chris Stevens, to Benghazi to strengthen ties. "We have been told here that a lot more delegates will be coming to Benghazi soon," Shammam said.

The conference agreed to study a Qatari proposal to sell oil from rebel-held areas of Libya, to provide revenue for the insurgents. However Clinton admitted that Americans "do not know as much as we would like to" about the INC. In Washington, Admiral James Stavridis, Nato's supreme allied commander in Europe, told the Senate intelligence analysis had revealed "flickers" of al-Qaida or Hezbollah presence inside the movement, and argued it required further study.

Comment: "Flickers" of al Qaeda? These "rebels" are cut from the same western intelligence cloth as the fake terrorists in the fake War on Terror. Not only is their leader a CIA asset, the US government is fully aware that their ranks are made up of people it would label "al Qaeda" in any other context:

Libya: Media Propaganda and "Humanitarian Imperialism"

Rice told Fox News she was "reading much the same stuff" and distanced herself from Stavridis's comments. "I think we can't rule out the possibility that extremist elements could filter into any segment of Libyan society and it's something clearly we will watch carefully for," she said.

Pro-Gaddafi forces bolstered by recent reinforcements bombarded rebel positions 45 miles from the politically and strategically significant town of Sirte, on the Libyan coast. Revolutionaries around Bin Jawad eventually fled under the intense assault.

The government army moved into the town and then continued to press east for 20 miles along the main coastal road until they came within striking distance of Ras Lanuf, which was left dangerously vulnerable when rebels fled a fresh round of attacks on the road. Towns on the road to Benghazi have changed hands several times since the beginning of the uprising two months ago.

The rebels' see-sawing military fortunes, which saw them charge down the road to Bin Jawad on Sunday after western air strikes sent Gaddafi's forces fleeing only to charge back up again yesterday, is further confirmation that they are unlikely to be able to defeat the regime without foreign air forces continuing to destroy government tanks and artillery.

It was not immediately clear if there had been any air strikes near Sirte or Bin Jawad on Monday, but the advance of the regime's forces did not appear to have been slowed.

Rebel fighters demanded to know if Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president who is a favourite of the revolutionaries after his government recognised them, was sleeping.