Armed forces chief insists UK is in Libya for 'long haul'

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The head of the armed forces, General Sir David Richards, moved yesterday to allay fears that Britain could not maintain the current level of military operations in Libya for much longer.

He spoke out after Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, head of the Navy, warned that the Government would have to make "challenging decisions" if the mission lasted more than six months.

With little sign of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi being forced out of power in the near future, ministers have insisted that Britain is ready for the "long haul" in Libya. But the operation, which began in March, has increased the pressure on Britain's forces which last year suffered a bruising round of cuts.

Sir Mark, the First Sea Lord, said the campaign would have been easier if naval commanders had been able to call on the aircraft carrier and the fleet of Harrier jump jets scrapped last year. But General Richards insisted: "We can sustain this operation as long as we choose to. I am absolutely clear on that."

He said it was "not correct" that the UK could only maintain operations for another three months and suggested the First Sea Lord had been misunderstood.

Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, also guaranteed the forces would be given the resources they required.

However, Rear Admiral Terry Loughran, a former commander of the Ark Royal, said an aircraft carrier with Harriers on board would have been invaluable in Libya. He told BBC Radio 4's PM: "With a ship off the coast, you get almost instantaneous response from the Harriers on board – literally 20 minutes and they are over the area."

In Libya, rebels made fresh gains as they pushed back forces loyal to Gaddafi in clashes that brought them closer to the capital Tripoli. Insurgents seized the town of Kikla, 93 miles south-west of Tripoli and pushed west of Misrata to the outskirts of government-held Zlitan. The rebels also launched a fresh push on the oil port of Brega in the east.

William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, claimed yesterday that morale was collapsing at the highest levels of the Gaddafi regime. He claimed further defections were possible after senior military commanders and the head of Libya's state oil company switched sides.

He said morale in the opposition National Transitional Council was high and its organisation had improved significantly.

"The Gaddafi regime is isolated and on the defensive. Through a combination of military, economic and diplomatic means we are ramping up the pressure for a genuine political solution for the Libyan people," he told MPs.