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British troops could be deployed to Tunisia

British troops could be deployed to the Libyan border to guard refugees fleeing the Gaddafi regime, Liam Fox signalled yesterday.

The Defence Secretary spoke out following the flight of more than 30,000 civilians – mainly ethnic Berbers – into neighbouring Tunisia. Many have been given shelter by local communities, but others are living in makeshift camps.

Although the Government has repeatedly stressed it would not send ground troops into Libya, Dr Fox suggested UK soldiers could be dispatched to its border with Tunisia to enforce “safe havens” protecting refugees from attacks by Gaddafi’s troops.

Giving evidence to the Commons defence select committee, he was asked whether sending forces to the border area would be within the terms of the UN resolution authorising military action in Libya.

Dr Fox replied: “That is something where we would have to seek advice on a case by case basis from the Attorney General.”

He added: “That is not a question we have yet put to the Attorney General, but I accept it is something we may have to look at.”

After the Cabinet was warned this week to prepare for the “long haul” in Libya, Dr Fox acknowledged that the conflict could last months.

“It is essential that the international community gives a very clear signal to the Libyan regime that our resolve isn’t time-limited,” he told the committee.

But he denied suggestions that the conflict had become a military stalemate with neither side possessing the firepower to deliver a knock-out blow.

Pointing to opposition gains in Misrata, Italy’s promise to join the action and Kuwaiti financial support for the rebels, he insisted: “Politically, economically, militarily, we are moving forward.”

He added that the speed and scale of the degradation of the regime’s military capability was “about as far from a stalemate as I could describe”.

The Defence Secretary also rebuffed suggestions that sending ten British military advisers to Benghazi to help rebel leaders would pave the way to arming the opposition forces.

He repeated his warning that the regime’s command and control centre in Tripoli was a legitimate target for air strikes – even if it was home to Col. Gaddafi and his family. It was not, he told MPs, a “holiday villa”, but a “military estate where there happens to be accommodation”.

Despite the spending squeeze, he insisted the cash would be found to sustain operations in Libya for as long as it took.

“It is very important that these issues are discussed but it is more important that we send a clear message in the current mission that we are not going to be limited by pounds, shillings and pence but we have the resolve to see through the mission.

“It is very important that we do not signal, at any point, that we may waver in our commitment to what we are trying to achieve in Libya.”