LIBYAN strongman Muammar Gaddafi i s warning ‘‘ thousands’’ will die if the West intervened to support the uprising against him, as rebels drove back an attack by his forces on an eastern town.
The chilling warning came as western powers dampened expectations of any early imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, amid a clamour from western states for action to prevent Gaddafi’s warplanes from attacking his own people.
The United States is a ‘‘ long way’ ’ from decidingon whether to impose a no-fly zone, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said as two US Navy ships steamed into position off Libya.
The 22 - member Arab League appeared to offer an Arab and African alternative to Western intervention, saying it would consider backing a no-fly zone with the African Union. But it ruled out supporting any direct foreign military inter - vention in Libya.
Gaddafi’s two-and-a-halfhour speech at a ceremony of loyalists in the capital Tripoli came as the UN refugee agency made a plea for hundreds of planes to airlift ‘‘ acres of people’’ waiting in freezing conditions to cross the Libyan border into Tunisia. Britain said it was sending planes t o airlift thousands of Egyptians stuck in refugee camps at the border, while France said it was sending a helicopter carrier to waters off Libya to help evacuate refugees.
Libyan rebels who control part of the country’s east called on the United Nations to order air strikes against mercenaries fighting for the 6 8 - year - old leader, who seized power in a 1969 coup.
But speaking live on state television, Gaddafi warned that the ‘‘ battle will be very, very long’’ if there is any intervention by foreign powers.
‘‘ If the Americans or the West want to enter Libya they must know it will be hell and a bloodbath - worse than Iraq.’’ Addressing ‘‘ our friends in Europe and the West,’’ he said it is ‘‘ not at all in their interest to shake the Libyan regime.’’
The veteran leader in an impassioned speech blamed al-Qaeda for the challenge to his 41-year iron-fisted rule.