Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces bombarded Libya's third largest city with artillery fire and advanced on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi on Wednesday as diplomatic steps to prevent him quelling a revolt ran aground.

A newspaper in Benghazi reported that a Russian-made MiG-36 aircraft, operated by the rebels, had bombed the airport at Al Kardabiya near Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte on Wednesday.

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The Brnieq newspaper said the bombing raid was in retaliation for an attack by warplanes on Benghazi's airport. Libya's Jana state news agency quoted the director of Sirte airport as saying the report was "false and unfounded."

Both the rebel administration and the government in Tripoli have in the past few days put out information about military gains which has later turned out to be untrue.

But the rebels' position looked highly vulnerable after the government said its troops took control of the junction at Ajdabiyah, opening the way to Benghazi.

The Libyan army told residents of Benghazi to lay down their arms, and one of Gaddafi's sons, Saif al-Islam, told Euronews TV that Libya's second largest city would fall whether or not there was a no-fly zone.

"Everything will be over in 48 hours," he said.

France confident of no-fly zone resolution

France is confident it will secure agreement for a draft resolution on a no-fly zone over Libya at the UN Security Council with the active participation of Arab countries, its foreign minister said on Wednesday.

"I have several reasons to think we will achieve our objective," Alain Juppe told parliament. "We will only act with a UN Security Council mandate and with not only the support, but the active participation of Arab countries."

A UN Security Council draft resolution on a no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians was circulated on Tuesday, which would authorize "all necessary measures to enforce" a ban on flights.

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Libya's exiled crown prince was also urging the UN Security Council on Wednesday to impose a no-fly zone over his homeland and criticized the United States, Russia and other governments as "uncaring" towards Libya's people.

Mohammed El Senussi, whose family was overthrown by Gaddafi in a 1969 coup, said he had written to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Security Council members "imploring urgent intervention to put an end to the killings being undertaken by the murderous regime of Colonel Gaddafi."

He praised Britain, France and Lebanon for putting forward a draft resolution on a no-fly zone, while criticizing the United States, Russia, China, India and Germany for hesitating or opposing such a move.

The governments of those countries were being "dispassionate and uncaring towards innocent men, women and children being slaughtered indiscriminately by the Tripoli tyrant, Gaddafi," he said.

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