Divisions strain NATO push for Libyan airstrikes

By Don Melvin

Associated Press

Published: Monday, March 21 2011 1:40 p.m. MDT

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe pauses before speaking during a media conference at an EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, Monday, March 21, 2011. The European Union's top foreign policy official brushed aside concerns Monday that the coalition supporting military action against Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi is already starting to fracture, saying the head of the Arab League was misquoted as criticizing the operation.

Elisa Day, Associated Press

BRUSSELS — Discord erupted Monday in Europe over whether the military operation in Libya should be controlled by NATO, after Turkey blocked the alliance's participation while Italy issued a veiled threat to withdraw the use of its bases unless the alliance was put in charge.

Germany also questioned the wisdom of the operation, and Russia's Vladimir Putin railed against the UN-backed airstrikes mounted so far against Moammar Gadhafi's force by Britain, France and the United States outside of their NATO roles.

"The Security Council resolution is flawed, it allows everything and is reminiscent of a medieval call for a crusade," Putin said. "In fact, it allows intervention in a sovereign state."

A day after Turkey declined to support a military plan for the alliance to enforce a Libya no-fly zone, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he could support the NATO effort — but only if it does not turn into an occupation.

"NATO should only enter Libya to determine that Libya belongs to Libyans and not to distribute its natural resources and richness to others," Erdogan said during a visit to Saudi Arabia.

There had been widespread expectation that the strikes against Libya would be overseen by NATO, and the hastily improvised nature of the military coalition has drawn criticism.

The United States, France and Britain initiated attacks on Libya on Saturday, raining cruise missiles and precision bombs on Libyan military targets on the ground, including Gadhafi's residential compound. Other countries have since joined in.

Diplomats said Turkey, a NATO member that sees itself as a bridge between Europe and the Muslim world, was angered by its exclusion from an emergency summit Saturday in Paris organized by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, at which the 22 participants agreed to launch armed action against Gadhafi's military.

France ended up making the first strikes, and the diplomats said Turkey's envoys had warned that NATO's participation in the airstrikes could damage the alliance's standing in the Islamic world at a time when it is heavily engaged in the war in Afghanistan.

The diplomats, who are accredited to NATO, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

NATO's participation in any military action against Libya would require the approval of all 28 NATO members. But Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal denied that his country was grounding NATO.

"Turkey is not blocking NATO, Turkey has been contributing to the preparations with a positive approach since the beginning," Unal told The Associated Press.

The NATO diplomats said the North Atlantic Council, NATO's top decision-making body, was unable to reach agreement Monday, and would take up the issue again on Tuesday for the fourth day in a row.

Even if such an order is adopted, it would take several days before aircraft under NATO command could start flying missions over Libya. The order also is likely to restrict NATO's air forces to making sure there are no unauthorized flights over Libya, with no mention of attacks on ground targets, one of the diplomats said.

Turkey was apparently not the only obstacle. Diplomats said France was seeking political leadership of the mission, but this was opposed by a number of other nations, which wanted NATO firmly in charge. Another sticking point was just how aggressive the enforcement of the no-fly zone should be, as several nations strongly opposed continuing the air strikes on Libyan ground targets.

Italy warned Monday that it would review the use of its bases by coalition forces if NATO does not take over. The country lies just across the Mediterranean from Libya and is allowing the use of seven of its military bases.

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