The United States would see it as preferable that any military intervention in Libya were conducted under a NATO banner, a senior US official said Wednesday.
"The US believes that NATO is the natural choice for any military action," the official said on the eve of talks between defence ministers from the 28-state alliance in Brussels on Thursday.
In Paris, though, a French diplomatic source insisted that "alongside Britain, we are working on what could be done without NATO. The sight of the NATO flag (in Libya) would be provocative."
The American official refused to discuss earlier comments by French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe or NATO member Turkey that each cast doubt on the appropriateness of the military alliance acting as the vehicle for enforcing a no-fly zone.
He said planning had moved into an "advanced" stage including setting up a no-fly zone over parts or all of Libya, "finding out how complex, how large and how costly" that operation would be at a time of stretched resources in Afghanistan, and even tighter national budgets.
NATO has "unique capabilities," he said, which would not be available to generals if an operation was mounted by a smaller coalition, but what is needed, he stressed, "is a clear and proper legal basis" upon which to go in.
The official was speaking shortly before US Defence Secretary Robert Gates arrived in the Belgian capital after a whistle-stop visit to Germany.
Quizzed as to the chances of the United States, Britain and France mounting operations themselves with support from Italy and Germany, the official kept up his mantra.
He said Washington wants "the planning... the decision, if necessary... and the action to take place within NATO," stressing that allies would need to prove a "demonstrable need" to intervene militarily and ensure "regional support" from Arab and African neighbours.
"Certain activities," he said would require a United Nations Security Council resolution, "but what we need is a clear and proper legal basis," as ministers step up disussions in parallel with European Union leaders also meeting in Brussels.
The same three-step approach has also been cited by Britain, France and Germany.
When asked what would happen if regional support was not forthcoming, a British official said: "I didn't say condition, I said guiding principle -- it doesn't mean necessarily that every single regional organisation in the Middle East would have to sign up to NATO action."
As Libyan leader Colonel Moamer Kadhafi accused the West of plotting to steal his people's oil, London and Paris have made the most vibrant calls among Western powers for a no-fly zone.
The British official said that "nobody is on the point of triggering a UN Security Council resolution for NATO action at the minute," but underlined that the talk "is certainly not a bluff."
According to the White House, US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have agreed to press forward with planning a range of possible responses to the ongoing unrest.
These included surveillance, humanitarian assistance, enforcement of the arms embargo and a no-fly zone, said Washington.
Our IP Address: