NATO prepares to take command of Libya campaign

24th March 2011, Comments 0 comments

NATO members struck a deal in principle Thursday to take over command of military operations in Libya within days from the coalition led by Britain, France and the United States.

"NATO countries are in agreement to launch final planning enabling it to take over the command from the coaliton Monday or Tuesday," said the diplomat, who asked not to be named.

Another diplomatic source cautioned however that details remain to be worked out over a no-fly zone enforced by the coalition since Saturday due to Ankara's continued objections to strikes against Moamer Kadhafi's regime.

After days of difficult talks, discussions continued late Thursday at NATO's Brussels headquarters.

In Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also announced the NATO takeover after a conference call with his US, French and British counterparts.

"The coalition formed after a meeting in Paris is going to give up its mission as soon as possible and hand over the entire operation to NATO with its single command structure," Davutoglu said, according to Anatolia news agency.

Several NATO allies, including Britain and Italy, wanted the 28-member alliance to run the show.

But Paris argued that flying the mission under NATO's flag would alienate Arab allies suspicious of the Western military machine.

Few Arab states have joined the military campaign, with Qatar the only nation contributing fighter jets.

Turkey, NATO's sole Muslim member, has offered a submarine and vessels to enforce an arms embargo on the seas. And in Ankara, parliament Thursday approved the dispatch of a naval force as the Islamist-rooted government moved reluctantly to join military action despite anger at Western-led air raids.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has slammed coalition strikes, saying "we have seen in the past that such operations are of no use and that on the contrary, they increase the loss of life, transform into occupation and seriously harm the countries' unity."

As Washington pressed for a transfer of command, NATO envoys have been meeting at headquarters for several days to discuss the issue.

One compromise under discussion would allow countries opposed to the strikes, such as Turkey, to opt out of such operations while others could take part in the attacks, diplomats said.

Italian Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa on Thursday evoked two possible aerial missions over Libya, one run by NATO and a second "no-fly zone plus" with a broader mandate that would permit strikes against targets on the ground.

Allies still have to hammer out the political structure of the more offensive operation, he said.

Italy accused the French of being "intransigent" and threatened to take back control of the seven air bases it offered for no-fly zone operations if the command handover is not sealed.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said London wanted "transition to NATO command and control as quickly as possible" and said it expected "to get that soon."

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte warned his country would only take part in a no-fly zone headed by NATO.

"For me it's the key," Rutte said.

European Union leaders, torn over Libya after Germany broke ranks with allies by refusing to back the UN Security Council resolution approving the strikes, were working to overcome divisions at a two-day summit that opened Thursday.

Germany went into the talks calling for a "total" oil embargo on Kadhafi's regime as others urged an upgrade in recognition of Libyan rebels.

"There's a form of give-and-take being negotiated between these positions", a diplomatic source said.

The countries taking part in military action, such as Britain, France and Italy, are less inclined to step up sanctions, said an EU diplomat who asked not to be named.

France however is expected to press for the EU to add political weight to anti-Kadhafi insurgents in the interim transition council by recognising them as "legitimate" rather than merely "political" interlocutors -- the status decided at an EU summit earlier this month.

© 2011 AFP

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