NATO’s chief said the alliance needs more attack jets to target Libyan ground forces, putting pressure on the U.S. military to step back into the air campaign against Muammar Qaddafi’s troops as they continue to attack the besieged coastal city of Misrata.
“We need a few more precision-fighter ground-attack aircraft for air-to-ground missions,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said today at a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 28 foreign ministers and leaders from other allied nations in Berlin.
The call for more warplanes, which Rasmussen said wasn’t directed at a specific alliance member, comes 10 days after the U.S. largely withdrew its ground-attack planes operating over Libya. U.S. and French officials said that their governments don’t plan to offer additional warplanes and that it is up to other allies to help.
NATO ministers met as a seven-week rebel drive to push Qaddafi from power has ground to a standstill and the Libyan leader’s forces pound Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city. Allies are struggling to overcome divisions on how to force Qaddafi’s exit amid complaints by Britain, France and rebel commanders that NATO isn’t doing enough.
“Qaddafi is testing our determination,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the meeting. “As our mission continues, maintaining our resolve and unity only grows more important.”
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters that within NATO “there are differences over the means to achieve a united goal” in Libya. France currently is “the biggest air force contributor, so we don’t have room for an increase,” Juppe said. “Other countries are in a position to do that, so I hope they will.”
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said troops loyal to Qaddafi are planting land mines around Misrata, a city 210 kilometers (130 miles) east of the capital, Tripoli, where he said 250 civilians have been killed in the last two weeks. Italy would support establishing a humanitarian corridor to enable aid and supplies to reach the city, Frattini said.
Rebels say that NATO’s air strikes have been insufficient in aiding their drive to topple Qaddafi’s 42-year regime, while French and British officials this week said alliance members need to offer more combat jets. The U.S. withdrew from targeting Qaddafi’s ground forces after an initial round of strikes, part of President Barack Obama’s plan to have NATO allies take the lead under NATO command.
‘Step Up to the Plate’
Rasmussen said he was optimistic that NATO would get the extra jets it needs. “I’m confident that the nations will step up to the plate,” he said.
Additional U.S. warplanes are on standby for deployment in NATO missions, though alliance commanders have yet to request any, two U.S. officials said earlier today on condition of anonymity. The U.S. ended offensive “strike missions” earlier this month, depriving NATO of warplanes such as A-10 “Warthogs” and AC-130 gunships, which can be more accurate than higher-flying jet fighters for ground-attack missions.
The U.S. is doing its fair share and doesn’t regard Rasmussen’s comment as seeking an increased U.S. role, said a U.S. official in Berlin who briefed reporters under terms that don’t allow the use of his name.
NATO has not made a formal request for additional U.S. aircraft, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said in Washington.
Juppe on April 12 said the alliance needs to “play its role fully” and do more to destroy Qaddafi’s heavy weapons. U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague said on the same day that NATO needed to intensify efforts to push back Qaddafi.
France doesn’t yet support arming the Libyan rebels, who control much of the country’s oil-rich east, Juppe said. The U.S. hasn’t ruled out such a move. British and French officials said that arming rebels doesn’t violate United Nations arms-embargo resolutions, a French official said yesterday.
Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Brussels and a former analyst at the NATO Defense College, said that given the alliance “doesn’t want to topple Qaddafi” itself, this means that arming the rebels is the only way forward.
“Sanctions and diplomatic isolation won’t get rid of Qaddafi,” Techau said in a telephone interview. “The unraveling of the system isn’t happening yet. It’s a stalemate.”
Techau said arming and training the rebels wasn’t a matter of weeks, “but rather several months and even up to six months.”
Libyan rebels want to borrow at least $2 billion to buy food, medicine, fuel and perhaps weapons as their foreign allies agreed to do more to help them prevail over Qaddafi’s forces.
Members of the so-called Libyan contact group said in a statement after talks yesterday in Qatar that they may create a “temporary financial mechanism” to finance the rebels using Libyan government assets frozen abroad.
“We’re exploring all options, including those assets we said we’d safeguard for the Libyan people,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington.
Libya has been effectively split in two since the early stages of the two-month conflict, a division that has helped push oil prices up 26 percent from a year ago. Crude oil for May delivery increased $1.00 cents, or 0.9 percent, to settle at $108.11 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Libya holds Africa’s biggest oil reserves. Qatar confirmed April 12 that it is marketing Libyan oil on behalf of the opposition and is providing energy products to Benghazi.
NATO airstrikes against Qaddafi’s military since March 19 haven’t stopped artillery attacks and sniper fire on cities such as Misrata or enabled the rebels to take and permanently hold strategic towns such as the oil port of Ras Lanuf. NATO said in a statement that it flew 58 “strike” missions seeking possible ground targets yesterday, down from 60 on April 12. It said that its jets destroyed 13 bunkers, one tank and one armored personnel carrier yesterday in the Tripoli area and three multiple rocket launchers near the central oil port of Brega.
Eight rebels were killed in an attack by government forces near Misrata, al-Jazeera television reported today.
At least 13 people -- all civilians -- were killed and an unknown number were wounded when scores of Grad rockets struck in Misrata, said a doctor there who gave his name only as Ayman, according to the Associated Press. He added that a ship sent by Doctors Without Borders to evacuate 165 critically injured people to Tunisia had been scheduled to arrive this morning at Misrata’s port, and he believed the government had shelled the port to interfere with the humanitarian aid, AP said.
More than 1,000 people have been killed and “several thousand” wounded in Misrata in the six-week siege, according to Suleiman Fortia, a spokesman for the rebels’ council.
NATO said in a statement today that alliance members and other allies taking part in the conflict set three conditions for ending air strikes on Qaddafi’s forces: an end to all attacks by Qaddafi loyalists on civilians, withdrawing soldiers to bases, and allowing aid into the country.
Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who met in Paris yesterday, reaffirmed their commitment to ousting Qaddafi and called for no let-up in air attacks, according to a French official who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. The leaders agreed that arming the rebels wouldn’t violate the UN arms embargo, the official said.
Libya’s Foreign Minister Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi said Qaddafi is seeking a political solution to the war along the lines of this week’s African Union proposal involving a withdrawal of troops from civilian areas, according to his Cypriot counterpart Markos Kyprianou, who met Obeidi in Nicosia today. Libya’s government will cooperate with the European Union and international organizations over aid supplies, Obeidi said, according to Kyprianou.
The rebels rejected the African Union plan because it didn’t specify Qaddafi’s departure.
In Cairo, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that a cease-fire in Libya is a priority and should be imposed “immediately.”
“There has to be a political dialogue that allows for a cease-fire” and allows for humanitarian aid to reach Libya, he said at a meeting of regional and international organizations hosted by the Arab League. “Qaddafi should listen to the call of the international community and adhere to United Nations resolutions.”
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said that Qaddafi must leave power as his regime has lost legitimacy.