Western powers tightened the screws on Muammar Gaddafi on Thursday, reaching out to his opponents as leaders mulled military and economic options to deal with the crisis.
NATO and the European Union went into 48 hours of crisis talks to respond to events in the oil-rich country as France became the first nation to recognise Libya's opposition as its rightful representative, and Portugal sent Gaddafi a message to quit.
Foreign ministers from the 27-nation European Union kicked off a packed agenda of meetings Thursday and Friday bringing defence ministers and prime ministers or presidents into Brussels to look at the prospects for military intervention via a no-fly zone, humanitarian aid, and economic props.
As the EU adopted new sanctions targeting Libyan financial powerhouses, France handed Gaddafi's opponents credentials as Libya's rightful representatives and is to dispatch an ambassador to rebel-held territory rocked by violence.
The ministers are preparing a full summit of leaders Friday, expected to also address a looming humanitarian crisis as well as announce a policy U-turn towards the southern Mediterranean following uprisings across the Arab world.
The stakes are high, with oil prices flying and the prospect of a flood of migrants crossing from north Africa into Europe uppermost in the minds of many.
For the United States and its leading allies, surviving a political tightrope with the fast-changing Arab world is a crucial priority.
"We do not want to get sucked into a war in North Africa," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on arriving for talks. "We want to have freedom. We want to support peace. We have to decide careful and wise."
Britain and France are lobbying for United Nations Security Council support for a no-fly zone. Anxious Washington wants any military action conducted under the banner of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, with Arab regional backing seen as essential.
"This should not be seen as foreign intervention. This is not Iraq," said Finland's Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb.
A no-fly zone, he said, was an "option that must remain open" in case of a grave deterioration such as a massacre or use of chemical weapons "but must rest on a UN resolution."
The talks move to NATO headquarters in the afternoon as the alliance's 28 defence ministers gather for a presentation on the military options from US Admiral James Stavridis, NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe.
Washington "believes that NATO is the natural choice for any military action," but at the other end of the spectrum, Ankara has described the alliance going in as an "absurd" prospect.
A NATO aircraft on Thursday launched round-the-clock surveillance patrols of Libya's air space to track Gaddafi's air force as he battles opposition forces, an alliance official said.
In Paris a French diplomat said that "alongside Britain, we are working on what could be done without NATO. The sight of the NATO flag would be provocative."
Gaddafi played directly to such sentiments this week, saying "the colonialist countries are hatching a plot to humiliate the Libyan people, reduce them to slavery and control the oil."
Libyan oil output has dived by two thirds since the crisis erupted.