Divided NATO seeks a role in Libya

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NATO allies sought Tuesday to mend an acrimonious debate over what role the alliance should play in Libya amid French reluctance to hand it the lead and Turkish concerns about the air strikes.

The ambassadors of the 28-nation military organisation entered a new round of talks to discuss whether NATO should take the lead in a no-fly zone run by a Western coalition since Saturday, or join the operation in a support role.

The strikes launched by aircraft and warships have been conducted by US, French and British forces as individual nations, but London, Rome and several other allies want the operations to be taken over by NATO.

With the United States eager to hand over command of the mission as soon as possible, US President Barack Obama said Monday he expected NATO would play a role in coordinating the next phase of action within days, rather than weeks.

But France is resisting handing the baton to NATO in Libya, fearing a backlash from Arab nations that it wants to bring into the campaign.

Turkey has so far blocked the approval of NATO operational plans for a no-fly zone over Libya, as it criticised the scope of the Western-led operation, which has included strikes on Moamer Kadhafi forces.

"We have seen in the past that such operations are of no use and that on the contrary, they increase loss of life, transform into occupation and seriously harm the countries' unity," said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Vowing in a speech to parliament that Turkey "will never point a gun at the Libyan people," Erdogan ruled out any combat mission by Turkey, NATO's sole predominantly Muslim member and a key regional player.

Germany has also refused to join the intervention in Libya, abstaining from voting for the UN Security Council resolution that approved "all necessary measures" to protect Libyan civilians from Kadhafi forces last week.

The temperature went up a notch on Monday when NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen criticised the French and German positions during a closed-door meeting of NATO envoys, prompting the German and French ambassadors to walk out, NATO sources said, confirming a Financial Times report.

Frustrated by the lack of decision, Norway said its fighter jets would not fly as long as it was unclear who was running the operation, while Italy warned it could take back control of bases used by the coalition on its territory.

NATO ambassadors met again Tuesday to try to reach a compromise, debating whether the organisation should take the lead or join the action in a supporting role, NATO diplomats said.

"Something will flesh out probably towards the end of the week," a NATO diplomat said on condition of anonymity. "We have some difficult discussion ahead of us, to say the least."

While the ambassadors have yet to agree on the no-fly zone, they have endorsed plans for the enforcement of an arms embargo and humanitarian operations. They have yet to give the go ahead to any action, however.

France signalled its readiness to let NATO take a back-up role, with French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe indicating Monday that the alliance could ""come in support" of the international campaign "within a few days."

Erdogan said Turkey was willing to be involved in the distribution of humanitarian aid in Libya, to manage Benghazi airport and to deploy naval forces to "control" the area between Benghazi and the Greek island of Crete.

© 2011 AFP

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