France gives Libya rebels arms but Britain balks

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France said Wednesday it had air dropped arms to rebels in Libya, but NATO ally Britain said it would not follow suit over concerns about whether it was permitted under UN Security Council resolutions.

Meanwhile, the increasingly emboldened rebels suffered a deadly assault from veteran strongman Moamer Kadhafi's forces in the third-largest city Misrata, where rockets killed one civilian and wounded six late Tuesday, residents said.

And in London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the cash-strapped rebels had received the first $100 million (70 million euros) from a fund set up by international donor, but the rebels said it was not enough.

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

It said the arms were dropped in the Nafusa mountains, where Berber tribes have risen to join the revolt against Kadhafi's four-decade rule and seized several towns.

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

"If the rebels can get to the outskirts of Tripoli, the capital will take the chance to rise against Kadhafi," said an official quoted in the report.

Colonel Thierry Burkhard, spokesman for the French general staff, later told AFP the shipments were essentially light arms such as assault rifles to help civilians protect themselves from regime troops.

He said France had become aware in early June that rebel-held Berber villages in the Nafusa mountains region had come under pressure from Kadhafi loyalists.

"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".

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

The British foreign ministry was also cautious, telling reporters: "Our position is clear: there is an arms embargo on Libya.

"But at the same time UN Security Council Resolution 1973 allows all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack," a statement said.

"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."

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

Meanwhile, in Montenegro, visiting NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance has "all resources and assets necessary to continue the operation (in Libya) and bring it to a successful end."

However, he suggested more cooperation among NATO members to "share and pull resources to get more efficient use."

And as a debate continues apace in the United States over whether Barack Obama exceeded his powers regarding US involvement in the NATO campaign, the president said it remained limited and legal and accused congressional critics of making a "fuss" for political reasons.

He said the operation was carried out under a proper UN mandate and Congress was properly consulted, scorning the "noise" from lawmakers who have made the bitter constitutional debate a "cause celebre."

He said the administration has done "exactly" what it promised and, "as a consequence, a guy (Kadhafi) who was a state sponsor of terrorists operations against the United States is pinned down and the noose is tightening around him."

In London, Hague told lawmakers the National Transitional Council (NTC), the rebel leadership based in the eastern city of Benghazi, had received in the past week the "first $100 million of international funding through the temporary financing mechanism set up by the contact group for vital fuel and salaries."

The rebels complained earlier this month they were running out of money and had not yet received any of the roughly $1 billion promised by international donors.

Mazen Ramadan, an NTC economic advisor, told AFP the $100 million "is a small amount relative to what we owe; fuel shipments are more than that."

He called on foreign donors to back new loans using as collateral blocked cash, including more than $30 billion in the United States alone.

"This whole asset unfreezing thing is going to take a while," he told AFP in Benghazi. "We are working with a lot of people but it seems like a time consuming process, and we need the money yesterday."

"We proposed a mechanism to perhaps get loans on the frozen assets and then use this mechanism to ensure transparency."

In other developments, the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor met rebel leader Mahmud Jibril in The Hague, two days after judges issued an arrest warrant for Kadhafi for crimes against humanity.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo "used the opportunity to reiterate the responsibility of Libyan authorities in implementing ... the arrest warrants issued" for Kadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, a statement said.

Jibril reiterated the NTC's position that "Libya should take the lead in anything related to Libya and on Libyan soil," the statement said.

© 2011 AFP

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