NATO meets to decide alliance role in Libya

  • Wed Mar 23rd 2011

Western governments inched towards a deal on Wednesday over who should lead military operations against Muammar Gaddafi's forces in Libya, with France saying NATO will have only a "technical role".

Ambassadors of the alliance were to meet again at 1400 GMT to decide on the extent of NATO involvement in the UN-mandated mission to enforce a no-fly zone and protect civilians.

The United States, Britain and France agreed on Tuesday that the alliance should play a key operational role, but the assent of all 28 NATO states is needed and they have been split over whether it should also exercise political control.

Turkey, a Muslim state, says the air campaign has already gone beyond the scope of last week's UN Security Council resolution. There was no immediate word of whether Ankara would accept a compromise at NATO on Wednesday.

However, Brigadier Pierre Saint Anand of NATO's military staff told a media briefing that Turkey was sending five warships and a submarine to join a separate NATO operation off Libya to enforce a UN arms embargo.

France, which launched the air campaign against Libya with Britain and the United States on Saturday, argues that having the US-led NATO in charge would erode Arab support because of the alliance's unpopularity in the Arab world.

Qatar has sent four warplanes, the United Arab Emirates has offered support, and British Prime Minister David Cameron said that Kuwait and Jordan had agreed to make logistical contributions to protect civilians in Libya.

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NATO agreed on Tuesday to enforce the arms embargo and completed plans to enforce a UN-mandated no-fly zone if needed, but still need to make a decision on whether to implement the latter.

NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the allies were consulting on whether and how to implement the plan. No decision had yet been taken, but "NATO is ready to act if and when required", she told a regular media briefing.

France wants to create an ad hoc steering group of member states of the coalition, including the Arab League, to exercise political control.

One possible model would the structure of the NATO-led International Peace Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, in which non-NATO participamting nations get a seat in the political steering group, diplomats said.

"For reasons of efficiency, we want a single command structure to run the coalition action, and NATO has such capabilities, so we must use its resources," French government spokesman Francois Baroin said after a cabinet meeting in Paris.

"We are working to ensure that the coalition continues to retain the political leadership," Baroin said. "Talks with our allies are being finalised. It's not quite nailed down yet."

The United States, Britain, Italy and Norway all want to put NATO in charge.

Turkey, which opposed the intervention in Libya, has said the alliance's role should be governed by several conditions, including an end to military campaign as soon as possible.

NATO diplomats said there was a constructive mood going into the meeting, but it was unclear if there would be an agreement.

A European diplomat said there appeared to be have been a shift in the French position following consultations between President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama overnight that could make a political deal possible.

"The line we now have is that NATO should have a key role in the command structure... that's a little bit short of the lead role, but different from where France was a couple of days ago," the diplomat said.

Key to finding a deal would be to agree a mechanism which would allow for Arab involvement in the political leadership of the mission, the diplomat said.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Tuesday that foreign ministers of countries taking part in military action in Libya were set to meet in the coming days to create a clear political structure for operations.

Obama, under domestic pressure to limit US involvement, said on Tuesday he had "absolutely no doubt" a deal would be reached soon.

The question of who takes n over leadership of the Libya mission is crucial for Obama, who has stressed limited US involvement for both voters and lawmakers worried about US forces becoming bogged down in another Muslim country while still occupied in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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