NATO set to take command of Libya campaign

27th March 2011, Comments 0 comments

NATO looks set to agree Sunday to take command of military operations against Moamer Kadhafi as France fights to keep political control in the hands of the US-led "coalition of the willing".

Ambassadors from the 28-nation alliance gather at headquarters in the late afternoon to mull military plans for a transfer nailed down only after long days of fraught talks, over objections raised by France and Turkey.

Pressed by Western powers, notably the United States and Italy, to take the helm as swiftly as possible, the alliance was expected to give a thumbs up, possibly approving and activating immediate engagement, NATO sources said.

At present, the transatlantic organisation is manning naval operations to enforce an arms embargo against the Tripoli regime, and has agreed to take to the air to enforce a no-fly zone to protect civilians against bombings.

But as coalition air strikes pound Kadhafi forces for a ninth day, tipping the scale to favour insurgents, NATO ambassadors will scrutinise in detail the rules of engagement needed "to protect civilians", under UN resolution 1973.

In its landmark ruling, the United Nations approved "all necessary measures" to safeguard civilians under threat of attack.

But Turkey, NATO's sole predominantly Muslim member, opposes Western-led air strikes.

"If NATO takes on the broader mission, the rules of engagement will take into account the sensitivities of all NATO members, including Turkey," said an alliance diplomat who asked not to be identified.

With decisions at NATO taken by unanimous vote, talks to pin down the rules have been acrimonious to say the least, diplomats said.

From the outset, Western nations levered for support for the campaign from Arab and African states as Turkey, a key regional player, vowed to "never point a gun at the Libyan people".

While Ankara late last week finally backed the no-fly zone and pledged warships to enforce an arms embargo off Libya's coast, luring Arab nations into action has been slow, with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates alone in pledging fighter jets.

In war-weary United States, President Barack Obama moved to reassure Americans on Saturday, saying "because we acted quickly, a humanitarian catastrophe has been avoided."

The Canadian appointed to run NATO's existing Libya operations from Naples, Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, is expected to be instructed to fire at Kadhafi tanks and troops only to save civilian lives or in self-defence.

"NATO will not take sides," said a diplomatic source.

Another key question to resolve is who will have political control.

France has warned that flying the mission under the NATO flag would alienate Arab allies and President Nicolas Sarkozy fired a new broadside at an EU summit Friday, saying:

"It would be playing into the hands of Colonel Kadhafi to say NATO is taking over."

That squabble, as well as efforts to clarify the end-game, will return to haunt key talks in London on Tuesday between a "contact group" of coalition nations.

"Decisions are taken by the political coordination, decisions to conduct strikes are taken by national authorities, and NATO splits the (flight) slots and missions, and discusses the goals proposed by the political coordination," Sarkozy said.

But a NATO official said it would be impossible for the 28-nation military organisation to separate its political and military functions.

The relationship between NATO's political decision-making council and the military "will never, ever be broken," the official said, though the contact group's input would be taken into consideration by the alliance.

© 2011 AFP

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