Bombs away: UN airstrikes could begin tonight as Qaddafi's troops near Benghazi; Update: UN approves no-fly zone

His air force is already bombing the outskirts of the city, but not for much longer. The Security Council’s expected to vote at 6 p.m. ET and the French are telling people that airstrikes against Libyan air defenses — and maybe more — could begin immediately thereafter. At the same time, Qaddafi just delivered another insane stemwinder against the rebels on Libyan radio warning people in Benghazi that the army will be rolling into town tonight and that, if they don’t surrender, they’ll receive “no mercy.” Which means, unless someone blinks in the next few hours, that city will be a bona fide international war zone by the time America goes to bed tonight.

This is turning out to be some week.

Ibrahim Dabbashi, the deputy Libyan UN ambassador, warned that, “in the coming hours we will see a real genocide if the international community does not act quickly.”

Dabbashi, who defected early on from the Gaddafi regime, said “about five” Arab states were ready to help police the no-fly zone if it was adopted

Al Jazeera’s Bays in Tobruk said that people in the city said they were confident of winning against Gaddafi, but still needed international help.

“I can tell you that when you speak to the people here, they say they’re winning, they say they’re beating back Gaddafi. Then you ask them the question should the international community do more, and they say ‘Yes, we’re all going to die if they don’t help’. So very contradictory answers to those questions,” Bays reported on Thursday.

The regime’s threatening to retaliate by attacking air and sea traffic in the Mediterranean, which is unlikely in the near term with NATO overhead but more likely if Qaddafi brokers a deal to stay in power and inevitably returns to his old terrorist-y ways. (He’s worried enough about imminent airstrikes to have opted for radio over video today.) Meanwhile, I’m intrigued by those five Arab states who are allegedly ready to help “police” the NFZ. What does that mean, exactly? McClatchy reported earlier that only two were on board so momentum is building across the region to help make this happen, but in practical terms it means — what? Certainly use of local air bases; possibly also … Arab air forces joining NATO patrols?

As for which five states are involved, Tunisia and Egypt are obvious candidates since they’re adjacent, have revolutionary fever themselves, and want to maintain good relations with the west in the near term to keep the foreign aid flowing while they reorganize. The obvious risk is that if Qaddafi somehow remains in charge, then they have to live with him and wonder if he’s plotting revenge. That’s not a big concern for Egypt, which could crush him if need be, but little Tunisia may think twice. Assuming they’re both in, though, then who are the other three states? Given the current circumstances in the region, would the Saudis dare lend logistical support to dislodging an Arab dictator — even one they despise? Stay tuned.

Exit question: How’d the NATO powers get China and Russia to go along with a no-fly zone on the Security Council? Exit answer: In a way, they didn’t.

Update: According to one report, four of the five Arab countries involved are the UAE, Qatar, Jordan, and … Saudi Arabia. No word on the fifth. I guess Tunisia and Egypt don’t want to make the mad dog mad.

Update: The vote’s over at the Security Council. 10-0, with Russia and China abstaining. Qaddafi’s response, via Al Jazeera’s live blog:

10:41pm Gaddafi did an interview with RTP, a Portuguese television station, this evening. In it, he said:

“The Security Council has not got the right to interfere in the internal affairs of any state. It would be a flagrant colonisation, without any justification. A serious and grave [inaudible]. This is craziness, madness, arrogance. If the world gets crazy with us, we will get crazy too…”

Asked what he means by ‘get crazy’, Gaddafi said:

“We will respond. We will make their lives hell, because they are making our lives hell. They will never have peace.”

It sounds like British and French war planes will be the first ones in.