PARIS — France's top diplomat said Tuesday that it already may be too late for world powers to help Libyan opposition fighters repel an advance eastward by Moammar Gadhafi's forces.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, in a radio interview before he and Group of Eight counterparts began a meeting in Paris, suggested that events on the ground in Libya have already outpaced diplomatic efforts. Countries still remain short of an agreement, he said.
Many countries have called for an end to Gadhafi's 42-year autocratic reign, but economic sanctions have so far failed to stop his regime and there has been no agreement on a no-fly zone despite pleas by rebels.
In recent days, Libyan government forces backed by warplanes, artillery and mortar shells have pushed eastward, and recaptured territory once held by the rebels.
"If we had used military force last week to neutralize some airstrips and the several dozen planes that they have, perhaps the reversal taking place to the detriment of the opposition wouldn't have happened," Juppe told Europe-1 radio. "But that's the past."
"What is happening today shows us that we may have let slip by a chance," he added.
Juppe, in one of the few public remarks by the diplomats as Tuesday's closed-door meeting got under way, also said the world powers remain short of an accord about how to stem the bloodshed.
He said the foreign ministers agree that efforts at the U.N. Security Council are needed to pressure Gadhafi's regime, and that Arab countries should be on board.
The pressure, Juppe added, could include "reinforcing sanctions, decreeing a maritime embargo and foreseeing a no-fly zone — even if that's not a panacea."
Also at the meeting, which has been planned for months, the ministers were focusing on Libya, Japan's post-earthquake crisis, and other pressing world issues.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who on Monday met with her counterparts and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, was en route to Egypt for talks and was not attending the ministers' gathering Tuesday.
Also Monday, Clinton held the Obama administration's first high-level talks with the Libyan opposition. The U.S. remains undecided about how much support to lend to a group it still knows little about.