THERE were conflicting reports of fighting in Libya last night as countries prepared to enforce a no-fly zone over the country and the west, allied with the Arab League, the African Union and the UN, prepare to meet in Paris today.
US President Barack Obama yesterday endorsed military action against Gaddafi, saying US values and credibility are at stake to stop “the potential for mass murder” of innocents.
The US military would take a supporting role, he said, with European and Arab partners in the lead. He ruled out sending American ground forces into the North African nation. However, navy ships and submarines were available.
Spokespersons for Colonel Muammar Gaddafi were reported as saying they were observing the ceasefire they declared after the UN passed a resolution pledging to protect civilians under threat from Gaddafi’s forces.
However, other sources said his army was continuing to attack those trying to depose the country’s dictator, including in the city of Misrata, east of the capital Tripoli. Clashes were also reported in the western towns of Zintan and Nalut.
Just who will lead the action against Libya was not clear last night. NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen met NATO ambassadors in Brussels yesterday. Afterwards he said the alliance was completing its planning to be ready to take appropriate action in support of the UN resolution.
NATO sources said they were working on launching an operation soon.
But France, which has been leading the drive for military action against Gaddafi with Britain, has said they do not want NATO involved. Foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero was quoted as saying in Paris: “We do not think it would be the right signal to send that NATO, as such, intervenes in an Arab nation. Allies have not taken a political position concerning NATO’s involvement.”
Much of this is expected to be thrashed out over the weekend and at the meeting in Paris today, called by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
A number of countries are readying their contribution to the effort, including Britain, Canada, Spain, Denmark, Italy and France. However, French foreign minister Alain Juppe said: “We are ready but I can’t provide a precise timetable.”
Their defence ministry said aircraft carrier the Charles de Gaulle is ready to be deployed.
Italian defence minister Ignazio La Russa, said the cabinet had approved the use of up to seven air bases that could be used by those involved in the operation. Other bases, including Cyprus, may also be used.
British prime minister David Cameron said they would join the international operation if Gaddafi fails to end attacks on civilians.
Britain, he said, would deploy Tornadoes and Typhoons as well as air-to-air refuelling and surveillance aircraft.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Washington that the US and its allies were working to put together an operation to implement the UN Security Council resolution that authorised all necessary measures to end the violence and protect civilians.
Germany caused some consternation when it emerged that it was one of the five countries that abstained from the vote in the UN on Thursday. EU Foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton denied there was any split between the member states, reiterating that the EU does not have a military capacity.
German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said it was not an easy decision and they appreciated the decision taken by others. He said: “After considering the risks, we reached the conclusion that we did not want German soldiers to participate in a war, in a military intervention, in Libya.”
According to the US Pentagon, Libya has about 30 sites with surface-to-air missiles, linked to 15 early warning radar that pose a significant threat to planes.
Most are along the Mediterranean and include Russian-made systems, the longest with a range of 300 kilometres
Ashton said she would meet Amr Moussa of the Arab League, who has been calling for a no-fly zone for some days, Jean Ping of the African Union and the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, at the meeting hosted in Paris today by Sarkozy.
Leaders from Britain, Spain, Denmark, Italy, Portugal and Belgium were also expected.
Speaking in Madrid after a meeting with Spanish Prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero yesterday, Ban Ki-moon said that today’s meeting would turn into a “coalition of the willing” of those ready to participate in military action.
EU foreign ministers will meet in Brussels on Monday but Tánaiste and Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore is not expected to attend, a government spokesperson confirmed.
The foreign ministers are expected to intensify the sanctions against Gaddafi’s regime and associates, adding more people to the travel ban and freezing their assets.
Action against Libya’s National Oil Corporation is also expected to be enforced by the time the European leaders meet for their two-day summit next Thursday and Friday.
Military assets in play
MILITARY action authorised by the United Nations against Libyan forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi could take place under NATO command or under a coalition of the willing led by France and Britain.
France, which was at the forefront of the push to take action in Libya, would likely deploy Mirage and Rafale fighters from air bases near the Mediterranean towns of Marseille and Istres or from the island of Corsica. Airborne refuelling tanker aircraft are also ready to depart from Istres.
Fighter jets could reach Libya in about an hour-and-a-half from the south of France and in about an hour from Corsica.
France’s Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier is at the Mediterranean port of Toulon so would be ready to deploy fast.
Britain said it would deploy Typhoon patrol jets and all-weather Tornado attack aircraft which are based at Royal Air Force bases in Scotland and the eastern county of Norfolk but would be moved to unidentified bases nearer Libya.
Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament that air-to-air refuelling and surveillance aircraft would also be used.
Britain has two frigates off the Libyan coast: HMS Cumberland and HMS Westminster.
It was not immediately clear whether the United States would be involved in an initial operation.
The US Navy has an aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, and other warships in the Mediterranean.
Italy is unlikely to take part in strikes but is expected to provide its air base at Sigonella in Sicily for NATO operations.
Fighter jets leaving from Sicily could reach Libya in half an hour.
Norway said it will make its F-16 fighter jets available for an operation.
Denmark said it would send six F-16 planes and one military transport plane to support an intervention in Libya.
The Dutch government said it backs the no-fly zone over Libya and would support a military intervention if asked.
Non-NATO member Sweden is seen as possibly coming into support enforcement of the no-fly zone at a later stage.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are seen as the most likely Arab nations to provide back-up for an operation.
Libya’s military before the insurrection was on paper made up of 100,000 troops, backed by heavy artillery, tanks, warplanes and a small navy. Since the rebellion some members of the armed forces defected and some hardware has fallen into rebel hands.
The level of rebel strength is difficult to ascertain, but the best equipped and trained units — up to 12,000 men — have remained loyal to Gaddafi.
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