US, Russia clash over bombing raids in Libya

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Russia and the United States on Tuesday clashed over Western bombing raids in Libya, with the US defence chief saying Moscow had accepted Moamer Kadhafi's "lies" about civilian casualties.

In a visit dominated by tensions over the Libya conflict, Gates defended the air strikes against Kadhafi's regime even as he predicted that the bombing would be scaled back within days once anti-aircraft systems are taken out.

As Gates sat grim-faced next to him, Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov called for an immediate ceasefire in Libya and charged coalition forces with killing civilians in their bombing campaign.

He said civilian deaths "shouldn't have been let to happen and we informed our US counterparts of our opposition".

Gates, however, said international forces were careful to avoid risking civilian lives and that most targets in the strikes were located well away from cities and towns.

He later told reporters travelling with him that nearly all civilian casualties in the fighting had been caused by Kadhafi's forces and questioned Moscow's "tone".

"It's almost as though some people here are taking at face value Kadhafi's claims about the number of civilian casualties, which as far as I'm concerned is just outright lies," he said.

Russia abstained from last week's UN Security Council vote approving international armed intervention in Libya, which aims to protect civilians against Kadhafi's forces.

US officials were grateful Russia chose not to block military action, but Moscow appeared increasingly uncomfortable as US and European forces pounded regime targets for a fourth day.

Russia's tougher stance on Libya came amid signs of strain in the coalition of countries backing the intervention, with Britain, France and the United States trying to shore up Arab support.

Gates arrived in Moscow a day after furious comments from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who compared the UN resolution that allowed air strikes on Libya to a medieval call to a crusade.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev later tried to water down Putin's outburst, saying Moscow could help mediate an end to the conflict while voicing disapproval of Kadhafi's actions.

Asked if he thought Serdyukov was backing Putin's line or Medvedev's stance, Gates said "he threaded his way pretty well between them", and added: "But it sounded to me like his comments were closer to President Medvedev."

While dismissing Moscow's criticism, Gates said he told his Russian counterpart that bombing raids would likely be scaled down within a "few" days as air defence sites are knocked out.

Destroying radar and surface-to-air missiles would pave the way for a UN-mandated no-fly zone that could be patrolled by combat aircraft, with the American military then assuming a supporting role, he said.

"I think as we are successful at suppressing the air defences the level of kinetic activity should decline," Gates said.

He made similar remarks after his talks with Serduykov, saying "significant military fighting that has been going on should recede in the next few days".

His comments came a day after President Barack Obama said the US military would be reducing its role in the operation soon.

Serdyukov, after hour-long talks with Gates, said military relations overall were progressing with Washington while calling for an end to all violence in Libya.

"We are convinced that the shortest path to the safety of peaceful civilians is through an immediate ceasefire and the start of dialogue," he said.

© 2011 AFP

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