NATO Sends Ships Toward Libya, Says No-Fly Zone Mandate Needed

NATO Members Weighing Libya No-Fly Zone May Face Resistance
A Libyan Sukhoi fighter jet flies over the oil town of Ras Lanuf on March 9. Photographer: Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

NATO agreed to send more ships to the seas off Libya and said more planning and a United Nations mandate are needed if they’re to put in place a possible no-fly zone to ground Muammar Qaddafi’s air force.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 28 defense ministers, meeting in Brussels today, considered “initial options regarding a possible no-fly zone in case NATO were to receive a clear United Nations mandate,” the bloc’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, told a news conference. “Ministers agreed that further planning will be required.”

Qaddafi’s forces resumed air strikes today on oil hubs in the central area of Libya’s coastline that marks the east-west dividing line in the conflict between government forces and rebels. While countries such as the U.K. and France have urged an air-exclusion zone, with the U.S. less enthusiastic, Germany and other nations have expressed concern about the consequences.

The increased maritime presence in the central Mediterranean “will improve NATO’s situational awareness, which is vital in the current circumstances, and they will contribute to our surveillance and monitoring” of the arms embargo against Libya, Rasmussen said. He said there was no discussion at today’s meeting of possible air strikes to enforce a no-fly zone.

‘Sucked Into War’

“We don’t want to get sucked into a war in North Africa,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told reporters in Brussels before a separate meeting of European Union foreign ministers.

Some Libyan rebels said a no-fly zone would help them defeat the Qaddafi regime. An aerial blockade must be part of a “full spectrum of possible responses,” President Barack Obama and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said after a phone call this week.

Libya, which holds Africa’s largest oil reserves, has seen its crude output drop by about 1 million barrels a day. Oil prices have risen more than 20 percent as the conflict rages.

Plumes of black smoke billowed from an oil storage depot in Ras Lanuf, where fighting intensified near a refinery, Al-Jazeera showed in a broadcast from the coastal city today.

Qaddafi’s air force dropped bombs near the Ras Lanuf refinery and a building of the Libyan Emirates Oil Refinery Co., Reuters reported.

‘Clear Legal Basis’

“I can’t imagine the international community and the United Nations stand idly by if Colonel Qaddafi continues attacking his people systematically,” Rasmussen said. “But I have to say we do not look for intervention in Libya and we will need a clear legal basis for any action.”

U.K. Defense Secretary Liam Fox, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program, said a no-fly zone wouldn’t have to start with air strikes.

“In Iraq that was not the way that we carried out the no-fly zone,” Fox said. “Rather than taking out air defenses, you can say that if your air-defense radar locks on to any of our aircraft we regard that as a hostile act and we take subsequent action.”

Bastian Giegerich, a consulting fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said NATO and EU leaders aren’t yet in a position to decide on military measures.

“We will see options by the end of this week -- but not action,” Giegerich said in a telephone interview.

Russia, China

The two veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council are unlikely to back an air-exclusion zone, according to Svenja Sinjen, security and defense expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

“Russia and China have many concerns,” Sinjen said in a telephone interview.

The Obama administration has pushed back on more vocal calls for the measure from members of Congress, including Senators John McCain and John Kerry. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the UN must make the ultimate decision. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that a successful campaign would require attacking Libya’s air defenses and that a no-fly zone would be complicated to enforce.

Still, U.S. forces would be required in any military scenario overseen by NATO, according to the IISS’s Giegerich.

“France and the U.K. could take the lead on the political level but I don’t think you can do this without the U.S.,” he said.

Rasmussen expressed concern about the broader consequences of a breakdown of the Libyan state.

There is the risk of division within the country and the risk of seeing a failed state in the future that could be the breeding ground of extremism and terrorism,” he told reporters. “So obviously this is a matter of concern and the reason that we strongly urge the government of Libya to stop violence to allow a peaceful transition to democracy in the country.”

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