NATO to ponder sending ships, aircraft near Libya

By Slobodan Lekic

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 25 2011 9:31 a.m. MST

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, second left, and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, right, talk to each other as Belgian Defense Minister Pieter De Crem, left, walks behind during the Informal Meeting of EU Defense Ministers in the Royal Palace of Godollo in the town of Godollo, 35 kilometers (22 miles east) of Budapest, Hungary, Friday, Feb. 25, 2011. Rasmussen said that clear priority must be given to evacuation of European nationals from Libya, while Ashton said that the EU should consider sanctions against the troubled Arab state.

Bela Szandelszky, Associated Press

BRUSSELS — NATO may discuss deploying ships and surveillance aircraft to the Mediterranean as it holds an emergency meeting Friday on the violence in Libya, officials said.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said the alliance does not intend to intervene in Libya, has received no requests to do so, and such an action would require a U.N. mandate.

The North Atlantic Council, NATO's main decision-making body, consisting of ambassadors from NATO's 28 member states, was meeting in Brussels.

The U.N. Security Council also meets Friday in New York to consider actions against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's regime — which could include sanctions aimed at deterring his violent crackdown on anti-government demonstrations.

Thousands of foreign citizens are fleeing the North African country, and NATO's naval and air forces may be asked to assist them. There also have been isolated calls for NATO ground forces to help evacuate foreigners stranded by the fighting.

Spain said it would propose that NATO deploy radar-equipped surveillance aircraft known as known as AWACS off Libya's coast to monitor the situation.

Defense Minister Carme Chacon told reporters in Madrid that the goal would be "to know what is happening in the country." She said Spain also will suggest that NATO deploy its ships off the North African country's coast.

NATO already has a naval force in the Mediterranean Sea, known as Active Endeavor, which monitors shipping to protect it from terrorists.

Earlier Friday, Fogh Rasmussen attended a meeting of European Union defense ministers in Budapest, Hungary.

"What's happening in Libya is of great concern to us. This crisis in our immediate neighborhood affects Libyan civilians and many people from NATO allies," he said. "Many countries are evacuating their citizens. Clearly this is a massive challenge."

Fogh Rasmussen said the priority is to assist the evacuations and provide humanitarian assistance.

NATO envoys in Brussels said they did not expect to discuss the possibility of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya. Any such action — intended to prevent attacks by government jets and helicopter gunships against pro-democracy protesters — would have to be sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council.

A no-fly zone could technically be imposed from NATO air bases in southern Europe or from aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean Sea, particularly in the Gulf of Sirte just off the Libyan coast. NATO has a series of air bases along Europe's southern coastline, from Spain to the Greek island of Crete, that could be used for that purpose.

Associated Press writers Jorge Sainz in Madrid and Cecile Brisson in Paris contributed to this report.

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