NATO takes command of Libya campaign

27th March 2011, Comments 0 comments

NATO took full command Sunday of military operations in Libya from a US-led coalition, empowering alliance forces to stage ground strikes to protect civilians threatened by Moamer Kadhafi's army.

As rebels pushed towards Tripoli after nine days of Western bombings on Kadhafi forces, NATO ambassadors overcame objections from Turkey and France after days of tense talks and agreed to take control of the campaign.

"Our goal is to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack from the Kadhafi regime," said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

"NATO will implement all aspects of the UN Resolution. Nothing more, nothing less."

Rasmussen said operational commander for Operation Unified Protector, Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard of Canada, was being instructed to "begin executing this operation with immediate effect."

Alliance officials cautioned however that the transfer would take 48 to 72 hours, meaning the coalition will co-exist with NATO's operation for another two or three days.

The United States has been eager to hand off control of the operation, and while Britain and Italy wanted NATO to take over, France shied away from alliance control while Turkey voiced concerns about the intervention.

Addressing Ankara's objections, envoys from NATO's 28 member states endorsed a three-month military plan including rules of engagement strictly limiting the use of ground strikes to protect civilians and populated areas, diplomats said.

The plan does not call for NATO to intervene in support of the armed rebellion fighting Kadhafi, the diplomats said.

"NATO will always remain impartial. NATO does not take sides," said a NATO diplomat who asked not to be identified.

The transatlantic organisation is already running naval operations to prevent weapons and mercenaries from entering Libya, and agreed to enforce a no-fly zone to prevent Kadhafi's jets from flying.

Under Sunday's agreement, NATO's role is broadened to strike ground assets such as tanks or artillery -- but only if the lives of ordinary Libyans are at stake.

In a landmark resolution a little over a week ago, the United Nations approved "all necessary measures" to safeguard civilians from attack, opening the way to the launch of strikes by a coalition led by Britain, France and the United States.

But Turkey, NATO's sole predominantly Muslim member, criticised the scope of the Western-led air strikes, vowing to "never point a gun at the Libyan people".

With decisions taken by unanimous vote at NATO, "the rules of engagement will take into account the sensitivities of all NATO members, including Turkey," an alliance diplomat said.

From the outset, the international coalition levered for support from Arab and African states, and late last week regional power Turkey 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, however, with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates alone in pledging fighter jets. Qatari warplanes have overflown while six UAE F-16s arrived at a base in Italy on Sunday.

Britain on Sunday welcomed the handover to NATO, saying it "ensures that partners from the region are able to participate and represents a significant step forward as we plan for the next phase of this vital mission."

But as critics query the end-game and exit strategy, another key question to resolve is who will have political control of ongoing military operations.

France warned that flying the mission under the NATO flag would alienate Arab allies, with President Nicolas Sarkozy firing a new broadside Friday.

"It would be playing into the hands of Colonel Kadhafi to say NATO is taking over," he said, insisting that NATO would merely run day-to-day operations while political coordination would rest in the hands of a coalition committee.

That row is set to haunt talks in London on Tuesday between a "contact group" on Libya gathering foreign ministers from more than 35 countries, as well as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

© 2011 AFP

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