The UN Security Council has sanctioned a no-fly zone over Libya in order to protect civilians, but has so far rejected sending an occupation force.

The resolution imposes a ban on all flights within Libyan airspace, except aid flights, in a bid to halt suppressive air strikes launched by the Gaddafi regime.

Member states are authorised to ‘take all necessary measures’ to protect civilian populated areas, and are calling for an immediate ceasefire.

The move comes after forces loyal to Col Muammar Gaddafi retook towns that had been seized by rebel forces and bore down on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, home to a million citizens.

The motion was proposed by France, the UK, Lebanon, the US, South Africa, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Colombia, Portugal, Nigeria and Gabon all voted in favour of the action while China, Russia, Brazil, India and Germany abstained.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC that it was ‘a positive response to the call by the Arab League’, while senior UN sources confirmed that UK and French warplanes could be in the air within hours of the UN vote to carry out strategic air raids on Libyan positions.

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UK military sources have as yet declined to put in any timetable on possible engagement but have played down reports that action could be taken as soon as today.