Years of Franco-Qatari cooperation in practice over Libya

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Brought together by a common cause and a shared experience, French and Qatari fighter crews are flying joint missions out of Greece to enforce the UN-mandated no-fly zone over Libya.

A section of the Greek base of Souda on the island of Crete has now become home for the two nations' pilots and some 300 personnel helping to keep up twice-daily sorties in Libyan airspace against Moamer Kadhafi's forces.

In effect, the cooperation began over 15 years ago when France began selling aircraft and support equipment to Qatar.

"Cooperation on the field is excellent," notes French squadron commander Antoine Guillou, who is normally based in Doha and has two years of experience working with the Qatari military.

The French and Qatari command centres stand opposite each other inside the Greek base. Their members greet each other every day, each of them respectively cradling cups of French or Arab coffee.

"We had to set up a French and a Qatari village in short order," Guillou told AFP.

"This involved installing all the necessary logistics, communications systems and electronics required for the missions," he said.

Qatar was the first Arab country to join the mostly Western coalition.

Their mission is to protect Libyan civilians from attacks launched by the forces of the country's leader Moamer Kadhafi as they seek to suppress a rebellion against his four-decade rule.

It was also the first Arab nation to recognise the transitional National Libyan Council set up by the rebel opposition.

No Qatari officers were available for comment on Wednesday, but one member of the 200-strong Qatari detachment, who identified himself as Mohamed, said relations with the French were "very good".

"We like the Greeks and the French a lot," said the airman.

Several members of the French detachment have followed their Qatari counterparts, opting to dress in desert-coloured fatigues reflective of their new missions. Others have kept their usual green uniforms.

Five Mirage 2000 fighters are stationed in front of the French command centre.

Another six Qatari Mirage jets stand to their left. Two of them are given the takeoff signal for the day's second tour over Libya.

"The planes carrying missiles can only strike aircraft violating the no-fly zone over Libya, they are not meant to hit ground targets," said one of the French pilots, speaking on condition of anonymity.

French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet, who visited the base on Wednesday, said the Arab nation's role in Libya operations was "essential."

"This is the first time that there is such a level of understanding between Europe and the Arab world," he said.

The French and Qatari Mirage fighters have been operating together over Libya since March 24, French squadron commander Guillou told reporters.

"Two French and two Qatari planes fly missions twice a day to patrol Libyan airspace," Guillou said.

In addition to Souda, NATO member Greece has made the bases of Aktion in the western mainland and Andravida in the Peloponnese available to coalition forces operating in Libya.

The base of Araxos in the Peloponnese has also been placed at the disposal of Belgian F-16 jets taking part in the campaign.

Qatar will be hosting the upcoming "contact group" meeting between Western powers and Arab countries over the Libya conflict.

Initial support from the Arab League helped convince Western powers of the need to adopt UN resolution 1973, authorizing the use of "all necessary" powers to protect civilian populations from Kadhafi's forces.

But after over a week of air strikes, the rebels have failed to overcome Kadhafi's loyalists and the question of helping them further with arms support has divided the coalition.

© 2011 AFP

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