Britain "may have to look at" deploying ground troops in the Libya campaign in order to establish safe havens for civilians, UK Defence Secretary Liam Fox said yesterday.
Fears of a humanitarian crisis have grown as food imports into Libya's rebel-held east have been hit while the National Transitional Council struggles to establish lines of credit and foreign traders fear they will not be paid.
Dr Fox was asked in the House of Commons if soldiers would be needed for humanitarian purposes or to protect safe havens in Libya or on its borders and if this would require a new UN mandate.
Dr Fox accepted it was "something we may have to look at".
"The basis on which we operate is if there is any new development which we believe is different from that which has gone before, we would seek advice from the attorney general," he told the defence select committee.
However, he quickly reiterated that there was "no intention to deploy any British troops on the border with Libya".
Following a five-week air campaign against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces, he admitted there were "limitations to what can be achieved by air power alone".
Opposition politicians said Dr Fox's comments suggested there was "no apparent endgame" to the campaign.
Jim Murphy, Labour's shadow defence secretary, said: "Ministers have consistently said there will be no British boots on the ground in Libya. People will be surprised if they are now suggesting otherwise."
From the start of the campaign, the UK government has been adamant that Britain will not be dragged into a ground war in Libya. With 10,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan, which Dr Fox insisted was still the "main effort", there are fears that another campaign would sorely overstretch the military.
Nato warplanes pounded Gaddafi's troops, attacking the rebel-held city of Misrata early yesterday, forcing them back after hitting vehicles advancing on the besieged port.
RAF fighter jets destroyed a tank and eight support vehicles, and damaged eight rocket launchers and a surface-to-air missile facility in air strikes around Misrata last weekend, the Ministry of Defence said.
The near-constant shelling of the city by Gaddafi troops over the past two months has spurred calls for more forceful international intervention to stop the bloodshed.
Chiefs or representatives of 61 Libyan tribes yesterday urged Gaddafi to cede power, while UN officials arrived in Tripoli to investigate allegations of human rights violations since the start of the conflict.
Dr Fox admitted the Libya mission was more demanding than ministers had hoped, but insisted it was consistent with defence cuts.
Meanwhile, the US said last night that the National Transitional Council deserved American support but it had not yet decided whether to formally recognise the rebels. (© Daily Telegraph, London)