ARAB support for the US-led war in Libya showed signs of fraying on Sunday in reaction to the sheer destructive power of the initial attack, claims of civilian deaths and a warning by Muammar Qadhafi to prepare for “a long war”.

The secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, appeared to wobble just over a week after his organisation, which represents 23 Arab states, voted in favour of a no-fly zone. Pictures of charred bodies led to not only the Arab League but Russia and China expressing regret over the violence. Moscow claimed the US-led coalition was going beyond its UN mandate to protect civilians and called for an end to the “indiscriminate use of force”.

As anti-aircraft fire was heard across Tripoli last night, the US claimed it had control of the skies over Libya and had stopped Qadhafi’s advance against rebel positions. The start of the mission, labelled Operation Odyssey Dawn, included unleashing more than 100 Tomahawk missiles at Qadhafi’s air defences. Defence sources said the next phase would be to cut supply lines to Qadhafi’s frontline troops.

Qadhafi, seeking to win Arab popular support, portrayed the military action as an attack by crusading colonialists and signalled that the west should prepare for a protracted conflict. Defiant from the moment the attacks began, he said Libyans had the patience to wage a “long war”.

“We will fight if you continue your attacks on us,” he vowed in an ominous radio address. He added that he would throw open the country’s arsenals, arming the civilian population with a million weapons to conduct this war.

Libyan TV claimed 64 people had been killed in the US-led onslaught with more than 100 injured, including civilians.

The British defence secretary, Liam Fox, said it was possible that allied forces would treat Qadhafi himself as a legitimate target for air strikes.

He said: “There is a difference between someone being a legitimate target and whether we go ahead and target him.

“You would have to take into account what would happen to civilians in the area, what might happen in terms of collateral damage. We don’t simply with a gung-ho attitude start firing off missiles.”

Hundreds of Libyan civilians had streamed into Qadhafi’s Bab al-Aziziya headquarters in central Tripoli before the attacks began on Saturday, as well as to airports across the country, possibly to guard against just such an eventuality. With the fight for world public opinion as critical as events on the ground, the top US commander, Admiral Mike Mullen, said he had heard no reports of civilian deaths. “We’ve worked very hard to eliminate civilian casualties,” he said.

But Moussa, in comments carried by an Egyptian news agency, was quoted as saying: “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of a no-fly zone. What we want is the protection of civilians and not a bombardment of more civilians.” A UK government source claimed his comments had suffered from mistranslation.

An about-turn by Moussa would seriously undermine the US-led effort. The Obama administration is anxious to avoid being seen as embarking on a third war against a Muslim country within a decade. The US cited the Arab League vote in favour of a no-fly zone as tilting the balance in favour of military action.

The British Foreign Office stressed that the coalition, unlike Qadhafi, was not attacking civilians. “The UN resolution authorises all necessary measures to protect the Libyan people. All missions are meticulously planned to ensure every care is taken to avoid civilian casualties.”

In spite of promises by several Arab countries to provide military support to the coalition, only Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have responded so far. A French defence ministry spokesman said Qatar planes would be flying alongside French jets “in the hours to come”. An Italian source said that jets from the United Arab Emirates may be hosted at Decimomannu base on Sardinia.

“I think it is very important for opinion in the Arab world to show that this is not simply the west acting,” said Fox.

British and US commanders are hoping that leadership of the operations will soon come under the auspices of Nato, whose members met in Brussels yesterday.

The military buildup around the Mediterranean continued last night with the French saying its aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle had left the port of Toulon and was en route to the Libyan coast.

The British Ministry of Defence confirmed last night that a number of RAF Typhoons had landed at Gioia del Colle in southern Italy. Aircraft from Spain, Denmark and Canada were also in the region.

However, defence officials denied that there was any likelihood of ground troops becoming involved. “That just isn’t part of our thinking,” said a London source.—Dawn/ Guardian News Service