The defection of Muammar Qaddafi’s foreign minister shows his regime is disintegrating, said U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, while the Obama administration called the departure “a significant blow.”
“It tells a compelling story of the desperation and the fear right at the heart of the crumbling and rotten Qaddafi regime,” Cameron told reporters in London today.
In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said they don’t favor using the American military to provide weapons or training to the rebels fighting troops loyal to Qaddafi in the North African country.
The U.S. doesn’t know enough about the rebel groups beyond a “handful” of leaders, Gates said. Both said other countries should take on the task of aiding the rebels directly. “There are plenty of countries who have the ability, the arms, the skill set to be able to do this,” Mullen said.
Cameron and U.S. President Barack Obama have said they haven’t ruled out arming the rebels.
Cameron also said today that Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa, who quit Qaddafi’s government and flew to Britain, hasn’t been offered immunity. The Scottish prosecutor said it wanted to interview Koussa about the 1988 bombing of a U.S. airliner over Lockerbie.
Koussa, as one of Qaddafi’s most trusted aides, “can help provide critical intelligence about Qaddafi’s current state of mind and military plans,” White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement. His defection “demonstrates that the people around Qaddafi understand his regime is in disarray.”
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee today that Qaddafi’s ability to carry out terrorism is “something we’re concerned about,” and among the reasons the U.S. wants him out of power.
Dozens of Libyan diplomats have quit since the uprising against Qaddafi began in mid-February. Koussa is one of the most senior officials to flee as government forces make gains against rebels.
Libya’s former deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Ibrahim Dabbashi, said more diplomats and senior-ranking Libyans are likely to defect from the Qaddafi regime “within days,” Sky News reported.
The western Libyan city of Misrata was subjected to “heavy shelling and heavy artillery fire by Qaddafi forces throughout the night and in the early hours of this morning,” rebel spokesman Saddoun al-Misrati told BBC World Service radio.
Oil prices, which have jumped more than 20 percent since mass protests against Libya’s regime started, rose the most in two weeks in New York amid concern the conflict will prolong production cuts. Prices advanced as much as 2.4 percent.
The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ crude output dropped in March as increases from Saudi Arabia failed to make up for a decline in Libyan production to a 49-year low, a Bloomberg News survey showed.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement the alliance is now in charge of allied air operations over Libya.
“We are there to protect the Libyan people, not to arm people,” Rasmussen said at a briefing in Stockholm today.
NATO jets carried out more than 90 missions today, Charles Bouchard, the Canadian air force general commanding the operation, said via videolink from Naples, Italy. A total of 20 of the 28 member states are expected to contribute forces in the initial stages, NATO said. Germany has declined to take part.
The U.S. and the U.K. have deployed special operations forces and intelligence agents in Libya to assist with targeting of allied air strikes and to forge contacts with Libyan rebels, the New York Times reported, citing unnamed officials in both countries. It said CIA agents and “dozens” of British Special Air Service and Special Boat Service soldiers are in Libya.
Obama signed a “secret finding” authorizing the CIA to provide arms and other aid to rebels, the newspaper said, though so far no weapons have been sent.
More Weapons Needed
“The rebels need more heavy weapons,” said Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Brussels and a former analyst at the NATO Defense College. “They need simple stuff -- not high-tech weaponry that requires extensive training and would be dangerous if it fell into terrorist hands.”
Fighter jets from the United Arab Emirates arrived on the Italian island of Sardinia to join the Libya mission, said Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman. Jets from Qatar are already flying with NATO forces.
The contested Libyan towns of Sirte, Misrata and Zintan are the focus of coalition air attacks, French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said today in Paris.
“We are trying to loosen the noose around these towns, and it is working,” Longuet said at a press conference.
Most of the Libyan regime’s heavy military equipment has been destroyed or pinned to its bases, he said. Coalition air attacks are becoming more difficult because the front has been moving fast and because “lighter units are harder to distinguish between the sides,” he said.
At least 40 civilians were killed by alliance airstrikes in the Libyan capital, the Vatican news agency Fides reported, citing Bishop Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, apostolic vicar of Tripoli. NATO said it was investigating the claim.
Qaddafi said Western air strikes could lead to a war between Christians and Muslims that could spiral out of control, Sky News reported, citing a statement by the Libyan leader broadcast by state television.
The rebels, after advancing toward Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, withdrew in the face of artillery and rocket attacks over the past two days as pro-Qaddafi forces retook control of the oil port of Ras Lanuf. They were also shelling Brega, another energy hub to the east of Ras Lanuf, and many rebels retreated from there to regroup in Ajdabiya farther along the coast, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, the Associated Press said.
No U.S. Role
Meanwhile, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said U.S. officials played no role in Koussa’s defection.
Koussa, who hasn’t commented on his move, is a longtime Qaddafi aide who served as head of intelligence and helped negotiate Libya’s rapprochement with the U.S. and its allies in the past decade. That included the payment of compensation to the families of people killed in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie that killed 270 people, the BBC reported.
The Libyan government said Koussa had been granted “sick leave” and had asked to travel to neighboring Tunisia.
Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim described Koussa as “exhausted.”