WASHINGTON, March 3 (UPI) -- A no-fly zone and other military options in Libya are doable, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, while criticizing what he called loose talk on the matter.
If a no-fly zone is ordered, "we can do it, but ... there's a lot of, frankly, loose talk about some of these military options," Gates told the House Appropriations Committee Wednesday.
"And let's just call a spade a spade," he said. "A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That's the way you do a no-fly zone. And then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down. But that's the way it starts."
Washington and its allies have discussed imposing a no-fly zone over the North African country to prevent Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi from using air forces to strike at protesters. Gates said enforcing a no-flight zone would require more aircraft than are aboard a single aircraft carrier, given Libya's size as the 17th largest nation in the world.
Other officials told The New York Times that with U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, a prolonged commitment to Libya, even from the air, would stretch resources thin.
Leaders of the self-appointed provisional rebel government in the eastern city of Benghazi Wednesday called for Western airstrikes against foreign mercenaries, which the rebel leaders accused Gadhafi of using in his struggle to put down the rebellion.
They made their appeal after rebel forces fought and eventually beat back Libyan government troops who attacked a strategic oil city in Libya's breakaway eastern half.
U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday "there may well be a role for military assets to get equipment and supplies into areas that have a need for them."
She said Arab League foreign ministers Wednesday rejected "any foreign interference within Libya on behalf of the opposition, even though they have called for Gadhafi to leave."
The foreign ministers, meeting in Cairo, said they would consult with the 53-state African Union on "the best ways to protect and ensure the safety and security of Libyan citizens."
"Arab countries cannot watch with their hands tied in the face of the bloodshed that the Libyan people are facing," the ministers said.
Rebels in the strategic Libyan oil city of Brega, about 150 miles south of Benghazi, repelled an attack by hundreds Gadhafi fighters Wednesday, rebel leaders said.
At least 10 townspeople were killed and dozens were wounded, some severely, in the daylong battle, the first major Gadhafi incursion in the rebel-held east since the Libyan uprising began Feb. 15.
"Bring blood, bring blood," a nurse in an ill-equipped hospital in a town east of the fighting screamed as she stood near a middle-aged man bleeding from a bullet wound in the groin, Britain's Guardian newspaper reported.
The body of at least one government soldier was found, The New York Times reported. His identification card said he was born in Niger, indicating he was a mercenary.
"Yes, they won" against the Gadhafi forces, Iman Bugaighis, the top spokeswoman for the rebel governing authority., told the Times.
But the spokeswoman, a university professor of dentistry, said the victory against Gadhafi may be short-lived.
"We don't know how long it will last," she said. "He's getting stronger."