AU slams Libya arms flow after French admission

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The African Union has condemned the flow of arms into Libya after France admitted air-dropping weapons to rebels fighting to oust Moamer Kadhafi but Britain declined over concerns about UN authorisation.

AU Commission chairman Juan Ping made the criticism on the eve of a two-day summit of African Union leaders trying to mediate an end to the four-month conflict as rebel fighters backed by NATO strikes advance on Tripoli.

"What worries us is not who is giving what," Ping said in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, where the summit kicks off later Thursday.

"It is simply that these weapons are being given by all parties to all the other parties. These weapons are already reaching Al-Qaeda, drug dealers and traffickers. They will be used to destabilise African states and to kidnap tourists for whom you pay ransom," he said.

The arms deliveries could backfire on the governments who supply them.

"If these arms are found in the desert it is a problem for everybody, for you (Westerners) as well. The people who are being kidnapped (by terrorists) are Westerners," said Ping.

France acknowleged Wednesday it has been air-dropping weapons to Berber tribal fighters southwest of the capital, insisting the move was not in breach of a UN arms embargo as they were mainly light firearms to help civilians protect themselves.

Colonel Thierry Burkhard, spokesman for the French general staff, told AFP that France had become aware in early June that rebel-held Berber villages in the Nafusa mountains had come under pressure from Kadhafi loyalists after joining the revolt against the strongman's four-decade rule.

"We began by dropping humanitarian aid: food, water and medical supplies," he said. "During the operation, the situation for the civilians on the ground worsened. We dropped arms and means of self-defence, mainly ammunition."

Burkhard described the arms as "light infantry weapons of the rifle type" and said the drops were carried out over several days "so that civilians would not be massacred."

The French ambassador to the United Nations, Gerard Araud, said his country's delivery of arms to the rebels was not in breach of a Security Council resolution that established an arms embargo to Libya.

"We decided to provide self-defence weapons to the civilian populations because we considered these populations were under threat," he told reporters.

France's Le Figaro daily, citing a secret intelligence memo and well-placed officials, said the weapons were meant to help rebels encircle Tripoli and encourage a popular revolt in the city itself.

The crates contained assault rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, it said, along with European-made Milan anti-tank missiles.

Britain's minister for international security strategy, Gerald Howarth, said London would not emulate France's move because that would raise "quite a few issues," including with the UN resolution that authorised military action in Libya.

The Security Council adopted Resolution 1970 in February and Resolution 1973 in March on the conflict in Libya. These resolutions imposed severe sanctions on the Kadhafi regime, notably the embargo of arms supplies to Libya and demanded the protection of civilian populations.

Article 4 of Resolution 1973 specified that allowances to the arms embargo can be allowed if in the interest of protecting civilians.

"We do think the United Nations resolutions allow, in certain limited circumstances, defensive weapons to be provided but the UK is not engaged in that. Other countries will interpret the resolution in their own way," said Howarth.

France has taken a leading role in organising international support for the uprising against Kadhafi's rule, and French and British jets are spearheading the NATO-led air campaign targeting his forces.

In Malabo, African heads of state tasked with finding a solution to the fighting met late into the night Wednesday after announcing at the weekend that Kadhafi had agreed to not take part in negotiations.

They were likely to insist on their roadmap out of the conflict after the summit opens at 0900 GMT, following AU criticism of the supply of arms and an international arrest warrant for Kadhafi, and complaints about the NATO air war.

The roadmap includes humanitarian aspects, a ceasefire, an inclusive and consensual transition and political reforms, African Union peace commission commissioner Ramtame Lamamra told AFP.

A delegation from the rebels' Transitional National Council, which has rejected talks unless Kadhafi quits, is also at the meeting.

The African Union's refusal to publicly back calls for the continent's longest ruler to step down is part of its diplomacy of persuasion that could be undermined by bold statements against him, a diplomat said.

But there is division among the delegates with some firmly backing the man who has funded many African causes, from conflicts to development, and held the rotating presidency of the African Union just two years ago.

Others say it is time for him to go. "He has to leave. No one wants to say it because he has financed more than one of them," said a member of one delegation on condition of anonymity.

© 2011 AFP

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