UK and France cajole coalition nations to join air raids on Gaddafi

Qatar meeting of foreign ministers exposes clash in strategies for dealing with the Libyan uprising
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The Independent Online

Britain and France are asking other members of Nato to step up air strikes on Libyan government forces at a meeting of foreign ministers in Qatar that has underlined the radically different policies of the countries involved in the Libyan crisis.

Divisions between the foreign ministers were also evident over issues such as using frozen Libyan state assets to fund the opposition in eastern Libya and the feasibility of arming the rebels. Germany expressed doubts about the legality of using money belonging to the Libyan government.

The divisions spring primarily from the differing objectives of the Nato, Arab and African foreign ministers. Though military intervention by France and Britain was first justified as being for the defence of civilians, in practice they are committed to overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi and his regime.

The opposition Transitional National Government based in Benghazi is insisting that it will not negotiate without the departure of Col Gaddafi and his family, but it has scanty military resources. It is only Nato air strikes that are preventing the rebels from being over-run.

French foreign minister, Alain Juppé, criticised Nato for not carrying out enough air strikes to stop the shelling of the besieged city of Misrata. William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, said aircraft from other states must join attacks: "There are many other nations around Europe and indeed Arab nations who are part of this coalition. There is scope for some of them to move some of their aircraft from air defence into ground-strike capability."

The eagerness of Britain and France to increase the pressure on Col Gaddafi was underscored by the announcement yesterday that David Cameron was traveling to Paris last night to discuss the Libyan conflict with President Sarkozy. The meeting is a day before Nato members are scheduled to meet in Berlin.

Rebel leaders at the meeting in Doha say they want more air attacks and claim Nato is using "minimum" power and should escalate attacks on heavy weapons used by regime forces. Last night Nato confirmed that its planes had attacked a munitions dump, 13km from the Libyan capital Tripoli.

The rebels can only put a few thousand barely trained militiamen into the field, and even an escalation of the air war would not tip the military balance towards them. "Getting armed is not our priority," said Ali El-Essawi, the foreign minister of the National Council, acknowledging that the coalition is not going to supply arms in large quantities.

Mr Hague called for a temporary financial mechanism to support the rebel administration in eastern Libya. The rebels say they need $1.5bn and Italy suggested using frozen Libyan state assets. But the German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle criticised this move, asking: "The question is, is it legal? The answer is we don't know."

The rebels have in the past insisted that one of their problems is that they do not have heavy weapons, but they do not have anybody trained to use them. After his unsuccessful war in Chad in the 1980s, Col Gaddafi largely dissolved the Libyan army so there is no cadre of military specialists to go to the front or train new recruits. At the 17th February Camp in Benghazi some 3,000 men are receiving instruction, but most of this is "theoretical" according to officers and includes only a few days of weapons' practice.

The presence of Moussa Koussa, the former Libyan foreign minister who defected to Britain, on the margins of the Doha conference has so far had little impact. The rebels refuse to speak to him and it is unclear how far he represents any constituency among senior Libyan officials around Col Gaddafi who might want to get rid of their leader.

Libyan opposition spokesman Mahmud Awad Shammam said the national council approved of a Turkish plan for a peaceful transition in Libya, but "they have to say the magic word – that Gaddafi must go".

In Tripoli, government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim attacked the West's "imperialist way of thinking", which he claimed was trying to determine the future of Libya.

A nation in need

As many as 3.6 million Libyans – about half the population – may be in need of humanitarian assistance as fighting rages between Muammar Gaddafi's forces and rebel fighters, the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, said yesterday.

This would create a huge task for aid agencies, already hampered in their efforts to get food and medicine to people trapped in the conflict zones. In the besieged town of Misrata – the closest rebel holdout east of Tripoli – many supplies must come by sea, risking bombardment by regime forces.

The UN has warned of deteriorating conditions in the city, with water supplies running low and doctors and nurses fleeing the town despite rising numbers of civilian casualties.

Mr Ban said that he was already in consultation with UN agencies for funds and possible assistance, adding that: "We must mobilise all means at our disposal, including military."

Almost half a million people, many of them foreign workers, have already fled Libya, creating chaotic refugee situations in neighbouring countries and as far away as the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Qatar conference: Who wants what – and why

Britain/France

What are they doing in Libya?

The two countries are leading the aerial attack on Gaddafi's forces, contributing the brunt of the Nato strike force over Libya. They also provide important logistical support via their navies.

What do they want from the summit?

Both countries have been agitating for more support from their Nato allies. Domestically they believe the conflict will be easier to justify if they can spread the load.

Can they win the argument?

Countries implacably against the conflict are unlikely to be swayed. But Cameron and Sarkozy will hope that the central European nations that joined Nato recently will be likely to bend to their will.

United States

What are they doing in Libya?

Having led the mission in Libya in the early days, the US has now taken a step back to focus on providing logistical support rather than aircraft for the attacks themselves.

What do they want from the summit?

Barack Obama's key goal is to extricate the US, ideally being able to declare victory. With criticism mounting from the right, he will be keen for the operation to close quickly.

Can they win the argument?

As far as their own actions are concerned, yes. No one can force the US to act against its will. But their broader goal of seeing Gaddafi removed will most likely take longer.

Libyan rebels

What are they doing in Libya?

They remain alone on the ground against the Gaddafiites in Libya, counting on their foreign allies only for aerial support. They have limited military equipment and training.

What do they want from the summit?

As well as requests for western help on training and equipment, and more attacks on Gaddafi's heavy weapons, they are now asking for around $1.5bn in aid.

Can they win the argument?

Their influence abroad has been significant so far and can continue to bring moral pressure to bear. Their diplomatic strength has been underlined by their refusal to meet with Moussa Koussa.

Qatar/Arab League

What are they doing in Libya?

Qatar has provided the use of its tiny air force. UAE has also made a small contribution. Syria and Algeria are the only members of the Arab League to oppose a no-fly zone.

What do they want from the summit?

Qatar has long been determined to become a key regional player, in spite of its tiny size, and needs western favour. The broader group is far from the united body it might seem.

Can they win the argument?

Qatar is unlikely to win any of its fellow Arab League members over to making more concrete military commitments. But their broader public support of the operation is probably valuable enough for Nato.

Germany

What are they doing in Libya?

Reluctant to support the mission from the beginning, they have refused to contribute military forces to the Nato operation. They are considering offering humanitarian aid.

What do they want from the summit?

As Europe's economic powerhouse, Germany has been hit harder than anyone by the troubles facing Ireland and Portugal. Angela Merkel wants to keep her country from any financial drain.

Can they win the argument?

They remain key players in the discussion as a Nato lynchpin. Their opposition to the conflict has also emboldened other opponents. But there is no sense that they will dissuade the key players.

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