NATO’s chief said the alliance needs more attack jets to target Libyan ground forces, putting pressure on the U.S. military to step back into the air campaign against Muammar Qaddafi’s troops.
“We need a few more precision-fighter ground-attack aircraft for air-to-ground missions,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said today at a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 28 foreign ministers and leaders from other allied nations in Berlin. The call for more warplanes, which Rasmussen said wasn’t directed at a specific alliance state, comes 10 days after the U.S. largely withdrew its ground attack planes from Libya.
NATO ministers met as a seven-week rebel drive to push Qaddafi from power has ground to a standstill and the Libyan leader’s forces pound the western city of Misrata. Allies are struggling to overcome divisions on how to force Qaddafi’s exit amid complaints by Britain, France and rebel commanders that NATO isn’t doing enough.
“Qaddafi is testing our determination,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the meeting. “As our mission continues, maintaining our resolve and unity only grows more important.”
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters that within NATO “there are differences over the means to achieve a united goal” in Libya.
U.S. Withdraws Jets
Rebels say that NATO’s air strikes have been insufficient in aiding their drive to topple Qaddafi’s 42-year regime, while French and British officials this week said alliance members need to offer more combat jets. The U.S. withdrew from targeting Qaddafi’s ground forces after an initial round of strikes, part of President Barack Obama’s pledge to let NATO allies take the lead in the air campaign.
Rasmussen said he was optimistic NATO would get the extra jets it needs. “I’m confident that the nations will step up to the plate,” he said.
U.S. warplanes are on standby for deployment in NATO missions, though alliance commanders have yet to request any, two U.S. officials said earlier today on condition of anonymity. The U.S. ended “strike missions” earlier this month, depriving NATO of warplanes such as A-10 “Warthogs” and AC-130 gunships, which can be more accurate than higher-flying jet fighters for ground-attack missions.
The U.S. officials fended off France’s demands for more warplanes, saying the Obama administration is satisfied with the pace of the mission.
Juppe on April 12 said the alliance needs to “play its role fully” and do more to destroy Qaddafi’s heavy weapons. U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague on the same day said that NATO needed to intensify efforts to push back Qaddafi.
Juppe said France doesn’t yet support arming the Libyan rebels, who control much of the country’s oil-rich east. The U.S. hasn’t ruled out such a move. British and French officials said that arming rebels doesn’t violate United Nations arms- embargo resolutions, even if they don’t plan to supply any offensive weapons, a French official said yesterday.
Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Brussels and a former analyst at the NATO Defense College, said that given the alliance “doesn’t want to topple Qaddafi themselves” this means arming the rebels is the only way forward.
“Sanctions and diplomatic isolation won’t get rid of Qaddafi,” Techau said in a telephone interview. “The unraveling of the system isn’t happening yet. It’s a stalemate.”
Techau said arming and training the rebels wasn’t a matter of weeks “but rather several months and even up to six months.”
Libyan rebels want to borrow at least $2 billion to buy food, medicine, fuel and perhaps weapons as their foreign allies agreed to do more to help them prevail over Qaddafi’s forces.
Members of the so-called Libyan contact group said in a statement after talks yesterday in Qatar that they may create a “temporary financial mechanism” to finance the rebels using Libyan government assets frozen abroad. In London, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC that Britain would provide body armor.
Libya has been effectively split in two since the early stages of the two-month conflict, a division that has helped push oil prices up 26 percent from a year ago. Crude oil for May delivery increased 77 cents, or 0.7 percent, to $107.88 a barrel at 9:57 a.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Libya holds Africa’s biggest oil reserves. Qatar confirmed April 12 that it is marketing Libyan oil on behalf of the opposition and is providing energy products to Benghazi.
NATO airstrikes against Qaddafi’s military since March 19 haven’t stopped artillery attacks and sniper fire on cities such as Misrata or enabled the rebels to take and permanently hold strategic towns such as the oil port of Ras Lanuf. NATO said in a statement today that its jets destroyed 13 bunkers, one tank and one armored personnel carrier yesterday in the Tripoli area.
Eight rebels were killed in an attack by government forces near Misrata, Al Jazeera television reported today.
Clinton said those responsible for the attacks in Misrata would be held accountable.
“We are especially concerned about the atrocities unfolding in Misrata,” she said. “We are taking actions to respond.”
Victims in Misrata
More than 1,000 people have been killed and “several thousand” wounded in Misrata in the six-week siege, according to Suleiman Fortia, a spokesman for the rebels’ council.
NATO said in a statement today that alliance members and other allies taking part in the conflict set three conditions for ending air strikes on Qaddafi’s forces. They are: an end to all attacks by Qaddafi loyalists on civilians; withdrawing soldiers to bases; and allowing aid into the country.
Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who met in Paris yesterday, reaffirmed their commitment to ousting Qaddafi and called for no let-up in air attacks, according to a French official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. The leaders agreed that arming the rebels wouldn’t violate the UN arms embargo, the official said.
Libya’s Foreign Minister Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi said Qaddafi is seeking a political solution to the war along the lines of this week’s African Union proposal involving a withdrawal of troops from civilian areas, according to his Cypriot counterpart Markos Kyprianou, who met Obeidi in Nicosia today. Libya’s government will cooperate with the European Union and international organizations over aid supplies, Obeidi said, according to Kyprianou.
The rebels rejected the African plan because it didn’t specify Qaddafi’s departure.