NATO struggles to overcome divisions on Libya action

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NATO struggled Monday to overcome divisions about a role in the military operation in Libya, as France resisted pressure to let the alliance take over and Turkey criticised the bombing campaign.

As more nations joined a Western coalition pounding Moamer Kadhafi's forces, NATO was still debating whether, and in what form, the Western military organisation should join the UN-mandated intervention.

NATO members France, Britain and the United States have acted as individual nations in the air and sea campaign against Kadhafi's regime, with US military officers coordinating operations from bases in Germany and Italy.

But London, Rome and several other alliance members favour moving to a centralised NATO command, with Norway even saying its six fighter jets would stay grounded as long as it was unclear who was running the operations.

"We believe it's time to move from a coalition of the willing towards a bit more coordinated approach under NATO," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told reporters ahead of talks with EU counterparts in Brussels.

Frattini warned that if NATO did not take over quickly, Italy could assume control of the bases on its territory.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe indicated that NATO could "come in support" of the international campaign "within a few days", signalling a back-up role for the alliance rather than the lead.

France, whose fighter jets launched the first salvos in the campaign against Kadhafi on Saturday, has resisted handing the baton to NATO in Libya, fearing a backlash from Arab nations that it wants to bring into the campaign.

"Many countries that urge us to conduct operations under the NATO flag tell us to take Arab nations into account, but Arab nations do not want an operation under the NATO flag," Juppe said.

A European diplomat said France was "completely isolated" in its position.

But Germany and Turkey have voiced their own misgivings about the campaign, albeit for different reasons than France.

Berlin abstained in last week's UN Security Council vote authorising "all necessary measures" to protect civilians in Libya.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu criticised the Western strikes and said the way the coalition was formed did not "sufficiently" observe legal procedures.

He said the international community's objective should not be "to launch a large-scale war" similar to those in Afghanistan and Iraq.

NATO envoys endorsed contingency plans for humanitarian aid operations and enforcing an arms embargo after marathon talks on Sunday, but failed to take a stand on the no-fly zone.

Turkey effectively delayed a decision when it called for a review of NATO's no-fly zone plans, stressing that civilians must be protected as the alliance mulled its role, NATO diplomats said.

The ambassadors were holding a new round of "very difficult" talks Monday, a diplomat said.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday that the United States expected to turn over primary responsibility of the operation to others within days, either to the French and British or to NATO.

British Defence Secretary Liam Fox told the BBC on Sunday that he hoped NATO would take command of the campaign "in the next few days" but that it is "all dependent upon getting agreement from all the NATO nations".

Other smaller NATO members insist that the alliance is the best vehicle to steer the complex operations in Libya, which involve warplanes and warships scattered across Mediterranean bases.

Danish Foreign Minister Lene Espersen, whose country contributed F-16s, said she hoped that alliance members "who have raised concern would put that concern aside and let NATO play an active role".

© 2011 AFP

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