NATO falls short on Libya command deal

Reuters News
|
Posted: Mar 24, 2011 8:07 PM
NATO falls short on Libya command deal

By Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - NATO agreed to enforce a Libya no-fly zone on Thursday but fell short of a deal to take full command of military operations, and Western jets failed to stop government tanks re-entering Misrata to besiege its main hospital.

Libya's government said it was in full control of the western city, with only a few al Qaeda die-hards holding out, though rebels said they continued to resist and accused the authorities of shelling Misrata's main food mall.

"The compound is on fire now, it's burning," a rebel, who gave his name as Saadoun, told Reuters by phone. "They know Misrata is suffering and there no food coming into the city and now they have bombed the main food supply for the city," he said. "This is an attempt to increase the siege on Misrata."

While Western warplanes expanded their attacks to southern Libya, having destroyed the country's air defenses, NATO ambassadors in Brussels argued for a fourth day about the command structure for the U.N.-backed international military operation.

And despite a Turkish statement that a deal had been struck it was clear the U.S.-led military alliance had failed to resolve a deep split over how the campaign should be waged.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters after four days of grueling negotiations the alliance's mandate did not extend beyond enforcing a U.N. arms embargo and the no-fly zone.

Asked if NATO would be able to strike at ground forces or take action against leader Muammar Gaddafi, Rasmussen said: "At this moment, there will still be a coalition operation and a NATO operation."

NATO officials said a decision was expected on Sunday on whether to broaden the mandate to allow it to take command of all military operations and attack ground targets in the oil-producing country, in order to protect civilian areas threatened by Gaddafi's forces.

NATO officials said alliance operations to enforce the no-fly zone were expected to get under way in 48-72 hours.

Earlier, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had told reporters: "The operation will be transferred completely to NATO and there will be a single command and control."

U.S. HANDOVER

The United States, embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan, wants to pull back to a supporting role in Libya. It is anxious to preserve alliance unity and maintain the support of Muslim countries for the U.N.-mandated intervention.

NATO member Turkey wants the alliance in charge in order to limit operations against Libyan infrastructure and avoid civilian casualties.

France wants NATO to control day-to-day military operations but for a broader steering group, including Arab and other non-NATO nations, to decide political and military strategy.

United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon meanwhile warned of further action on Libya if Tripoli failed to comply with resolutions from the Security Council, which last week approved "all necessary measures" to protect Libyan civilians against Gaddafi's forces as he fights an uprising against his rule.

"There is no evidence that Libyan authorities have taken steps to carry out their obligations under resolutions 1970 or 1973," Ban told the Security Council.

Ban said his special envoy to Libya had warned Gaddafi's government the Security Council could take "additional measures" if Libya failed to comply with its demand for a ceasefire.

The African Union invited Gaddafi's government, the rebel opposition, the European Union, U.N. Security Council and neighboring Arab countries to discuss the crisis on Friday in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

The Libyan government, which welcomed the initiative, denies its army is conducting any offensive operations and says troops are only defending themselves when they come under attack.

AIR STRIKES

State television reported Western air strikes on military and residential areas of the capital Tripoli in a sixth night of attacks on Thursday, prompting bursts of anti-aircraft fire.

Earlier, Western air strikes destroyed government tanks outside rebel-held Misrata, but other tanks inside the city were not hit, a resident said, underlining the difficulty of the U.N.-backed military mission to protect civilians.

Gaddafi's tanks rolled back into Misrata under the cover of darkness and shelled the area near the hospital, which was also under fire from government snipers, residents and rebels said.

"The situation is very serious," a doctor in the western town said by telephone before the line was cut off.

The government said it was in full control of Misrata, Libya's third city with a population of at least 300,000 people. Only a hard core of rebels were holding out in the city, which is around 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli.

"These people are al Qaeda affiliates, they are prepared to die, they want to die, because death for them is happiness, is paradise," Libyan government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said.

Opposition spokesman Abdulbasset Abu Mzereiq said by telephone that rebels were still fighting there, and had killed 30 snipers who had been picking off civilians from rooftops in the town. Government warships had left the port.

Elsewhere, clashes between rebels and besieging forces continued in the eastern frontline town of Ajdabiyah, said Abu Musab, who left the town by car with his family of 10.

"There is no water, no power and the bombing is random. Everyone has left," he said, adding that Gaddafi's forces were positioned to the east, west and south of the town.

"There are revolutionaries in the town and there is fighting going on right now."

GUNS AND AMMUNITION

Western commanders are hoping the rag-tag rebel force in eastern Libya will overthrow Gaddafi for them but there is now little movement on the eastern front line at Ajdabiyah, 150 km (90 miles) to the south of Benghazi.

Rebels in the eastern city, home to a emerging alternative government, said they were being outgunned by government forces and needed communications, ammunition and anti-tank weapons to halt attacks by heavy armor.

"We need arms and ammunition. This is our only problem," rebel military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Bani told a briefing.

Al Arabiya television said Western warplanes struck Sabha, a Gaddafi stronghold in southern Libya, as they went in search of other strategic targets, having destroyed Libya's air defenses.

France said it had hit an air base in central Libya and a government plane after it landed at Misrata airport.

Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said strikes had hit military and civilian compounds in the central Jufrah region and other targets in Tripoli, Misrata and south of Benghazi.

In Tripoli, Libyan officials took Reuters journalists to a hospital to see 18 male corpses, some charred beyond recognition, they said were military personnel and civilians killed by Western bombing overnight.

It was the first time foreign reporters had been shown alleged victims of the air strikes and it was not possible to verify how many were civilians. Libya says dozens have been killed. Western forces deny any have been killed in the strikes.

Haitham al-Trablousi, a doctor in Tripoli, told Al Arabiya television by telephone: "There are no civilian casualties and the bombing is very accurate....All the bodies which we have seen on the Libyan channels are corpses of people killed during the intifada (uprising) in Zawiyah."

(Reporting by Mohammed Abbas and Angus MacSwan in Benghazi, Hamid Ould Ahmed and Christian Lowe in Algiers, Tom Perry in Cairo, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Phil Stewart in Moscow, Andrew Quinn in Washington, Catherine Bremer, Emmanuel Jarry and Yves Clarisse in Paris; writing by Jon Boyle; editing by Mark Trevelyan)