Britain “may have to look at” deploying ground troops in the Libya campaign in order to establish safe havens for civilians, Liam Fox has said.
Fears of a humanitarian crisis have grown as food imports into Libya’s rebel-held east have been hit while the National Transitional Council struggles to establish lines of credit and foreign traders fear they will not be paid.
Dr Fox, the defence secretary, was asked if soldiers would be needed for humanitarian purposes or to protect safe havens in Libya or its borders and if this would require a new United Nations mandate.
In response to the question by Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP MP, Dr Fox accepted that it was “something we may have to look at”.
“The basis on which we operate is if there is any new development which we believe is different from that which has gone before we would seek advice from the Attorney General,” he told the Commons Defence Committee.
“That is not a question we have yet put to the Attorney General but I accept that it is something we may have to look at.”
However he quickly reiterated that there was “no intention to deploy any British troops on the border with Libya.”
Following a five week air campaign against Col Muammar Gaddafi’s army he admitted that there were “limitations to what can be achieved by air power alone”.
Opposition politicians said Dr Fox’s comments suggested there was “no apparent endgame” to the Libya campaign.
Jim Murphy, the shadow defence secretary, said: “Ministers have consistently said that there will be no British boots on the ground in Libya. People will be surprised if ministers are now suggesting otherwise.”
From the outset of the campaign the Government has been adamant that Britain will not be dragged into a ground war in Libya.
With 10,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan, which Dr Fox insisted was still the “main effort”, and the Army on constant operations since 2003 there are fears that another campaign would sorely over-stretch the military.
Nato warplanes pounded Gaddafi troops attacking the rebel-held city of Misurata, forcing them back early on Wednesday after hitting vehicles advancing on the besieged port.
The near-constant shelling of the city by government troops over the past two months has spurred calls for more forceful international intervention to stop the bloodshed. Chiefs or representatives of 61 Libyan tribes meanwhile urged Col Gaddafi to cede power, while a team of United Nations investigators arrived in Tripoli to investigate allegations of human rights violations since the start of the conflict.
RAF Tornados and Typhoons destroyed a tank, eight support vehicles, damaged eight rocket launchers, and a surface-to-air missile facility in airstrikes around Misurata on Saturday and Sunday, the MoD reported.
Dr Fox admitted that the Libya mission was more demanding than ministers had hoped, but insisted it was consistent with the Government’s defence cuts.
“Perhaps the level and the speed and intensity have been greater than we might have hoped, but it has come within the scope of what the SDSR was set up to deal with,” he said.
George Osborne, the Chancellor, last month told MPs that the Libyan operation would cost “tens of millions of pounds” although some analysts put the figure at £1 billion over the next six months.
The Libyan operation is being funded from the Treasury reserve, not the defence budget, and Dr Fox insisted that costs would not limit the length of the UK operation.