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NATO spy planes today mounted a 24-hour air space surveillance over Libya, as British defence secretary Liam Fox hinted that a no-fly zone could be enforced without wiping the North African nation’s air defences.

Three Boeing E-3 Sentry aircraft are airborne over the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast keeping track of all Libyan fighters, NATO officials said.

The surveillance was put into operation around noon today and came as Libyan air force fighters carried out the heaviest bombing of rebel positions at Ras Lanuf in the east and captured the key western city of Zawiyah, 50-km from the capital Tripoli.

In growing signs that a US and NATO combine military action may be imminent, the British defence secretary said that a no-fly zone over Libya was possible without hitting at Libyan air force bases and air defence systems.

In contrast to comments by US defence secretary Robert Gates, Fox said a no-fly zone like that was enforced over Iraq between 1991-2003, could also be imposed over Libya.

Fox told the BBC Radio that the aim of the western forces would require a demonstrable need, a strong legal basis and broad international and regional support.

Fox will meet fellow NATO defence ministers later to discuss the drafting of a UN resolution, being put together by the UK and France, which will call for an air exclusion zone over Libya.

Asked by BBC whether such a move would require an attack on the country, he replied: “In Iraq that’s not the way we carried out the no-fly zone. There are alternatives.”

The British defence secretary said that, rather than “taking out” air defences in a pre-emptive strike, NATO leaders could say that, if an enemy locked its air defence radar on NATO planes, they could “regard that as a hostile action and take subsequent action”.

He added, “That’s one military option but there are other military options that we have used.”

The defence secretary said he and his NATO colleagues wanted to make sure that “we are all on the same page”.

Fox also said any action would require international and regional support, but described Colonel Gaddafi‘s use of violence as “very worrying”.

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