UK and Nato forces would be prepared to turn their guns on their present allies, Libya's rebels, if they attacked civilians loyal to Muammar Gaddafi's regime, British officials stated yesterday.
The warning follows a report by Human Rights Watch accusing the opposition of abusing civilians and calling on the provisional government in Benghazi, the National Transitional Council (NTC), to investigate. One rebel commander said last night: "We object to being threatened by our allies. They are taking part in military action only at our invitation."
Western powers intervened in Libya under UN Resolution 1973, which allows military action to protect the Libyan population. This has, so far, led to prolonged air strikes against regime forces and installations, and Colonel Gaddafi, plus some close to him, have been indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Its chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said there was evidence the Libyan leader ordered the rape of hundreds of women as part of his campaign against rebel forces.
Safeguarding civilians will be a key aspect of the "post-Gaddafi" scenario when the bitter civil war ends. British officials said the NTC will police Tripoli and Sirte, Colonel Gaddafi's birthplace and a loyalist stronghold, at the end of hostilities.
But the rebels have also committed human rights abuses, including the killing of those accused of being regime supporters, and lynching black migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa after claiming they were mercenaries. Human Rights Watch said that as of 28 May the rebels held 330 people.
Yesterday, a British official said: "We will protect civilians by all means necessary while the UN mandate is in force, and that applies to everybody. If the NTC attacks civilians, the mandate would give the international community the grounds to intervene."
Separately, the US Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, last night challenged five Nato allies to contribute more to the campaign in Libya. He singled out Germany and Poland as two countries who were not contributing at all, and said Spain, Turkey and the Netherlands should increase their limited participation. British Apache helicopters and French Gazelle and Tiger helicopters have led recent attacks in Libya, but Barack Obama has declined to put US warplanes back into an offensive role.
* Thousands of troops loyal to Colonel Gaddafi advanced on the rebel-held western city of Misrata yesterday, with renewed shelling killing 10 rebel fighters and injuring 24. In Tripoli, Nato resumed operations after a quiet day, with a loud blast heard in the capital yesterday evening.