NATO and UK hopeful on Libya strike aircraft

Reuters News
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Posted: Apr 15, 2011 10:07 AM
NATO and UK hopeful on Libya strike aircraft

By Adrian Croft and David Brunnstrom

BERLIN (Reuters) - NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Britain voiced optimism on Friday that NATO allies would supply more combat planes for the Libyan mission, but Italy ruled out ordering its planes to open fire.

"We have got indications that nations will deliver what is needed ... I'm hopeful that we will get the necessary assets in the very near future," Rasmussen told a news conference at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Berlin.

Britain and France are urging other NATO allies to provide more planes capable of hitting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's ground forces after the United States cut back its role in the operation. Libyan rebels want more aggressive NATO action.

The United States and European NATO allies have so far rebuffed French and British calls to contribute more actively.

"I'm hopeful there will be more strike assets made available to NATO," British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who has been lobbying other NATO allies to provide more strike aircraft, said after talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Italy, seen as a key candidate to increase NATO firepower, immediately ruled out ordering its aircraft to open fire.

Rome has made air bases available for NATO forces and has contributed eight aircraft to the mission but only for reconnaissance and monitoring.

"The current line being followed by Italy is the right one and we are not thinking about changing our contribution to the military operations in Libya," Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa told reporters in Rome.

NATO officials say the alliance is short of about 10 aircraft for air strikes. A French official named Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Sweden as countries that could do more.

On Thursday, Spain said it had no plan to join the seven of the 28 NATO states that have been involved in ground strikes.

CONCERN OVER MISRATA

Hague said the United States and Britain saw eye-to-eye on what extra military assets were required for the Libya mission.

"Of course, we've discussed some specifics about what we will do. I can't go into detail in public about those things at the moment," he said of his discussions with Clinton.

Asked if Britain might be prepared to contribute more combat aircraft if other allies did not come forward, Hague said: "We'll always keep that under review but ... as of today this question doesn't arise."

Libyan rebels have begged for more air strikes, saying they face a massacre from government artillery barrages in the besieged city of Misrata.

Hague said "we are all desperately concerned about the extent of civilian casualties" caused by Gaddafi forces in Misrata and NATO was doing all it could, but was restricted by its own efforts to avoid hurting civilians.

"If it hadn't been for what NATO is doing Misrata would probably have been overrun some time ago. Indeed if it hadn't been for what we are doing Benghazi itself (the rebel stronghold) would have been overrun," he said.

France, Britain and the United States, whose leaders vowed on Friday to keep up their military campaign in Libya until Gaddafi leaves power, are seeking ways to increase pressure on him to avoid a lengthy military stalemate.

French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said France and Britain wanted to extend air strikes to logistics and decision centers of Gaddafi's army, rather than start arming rebels.

Belgian Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere said NATO was prepared to go on with the Libyan mission as long as necessary.

"We still think that if the (Libyan) regime would be willing to change its mind about what it is doing that would be the wisest thing, and in that respect we would like to see the operation end as soon as possible," he told Reuters in Berlin.

"But ... if the regime is not willing to abide by the (U.N.) resolutions 1970 and 1973 it is clear that the international community is determined to continue as long as it takes."

(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie in Rome, Catherine Bremer in Paris; Editing by David Brunnstrom and Louise Ireland)