The United Nations resolution under which Britain and Nato allies have intervened in Libya does not allow the training of rebel forces or helping them to plan military missions against Muammar Gaddafi's forces, according to government lawyers in London.
In echoes of the controversy surrounding the legal justification for the Iraq invasion presented by the Blair administration, senior British military officers have privately stated that they would like clarification on the standing of their forces under international law as pressure grows for greater involvement of UK forces. There are currently around a dozen British military personnel – under the command of an army colonel who had recently served with distinction in Helmand – based in Benghazi, the capital of "Free Libya". However, although the team has helped to set up secure communications between the opposition forces and Nato in Belgium, they are under orders, following legal advice, not to play any direct part in organising operations.
With the conflict appearing to have reached an impasse on the ground David Cameron has told MPs that he was considering arming the revolutionaries. At the same time, the Defence Secretary Liam Fox stated that the regime's command and control, and by inference Col Gaddafi, were legitimate targets for Western air strikes.
Military sources have, however, disclosed that the Government's lawyers are concerned that UN resolution 1973, which allows action to be taken to protect civilians, does not extend to overtly taking sides in a civil war.
One senior officer said: "There is a need for clarity on what exactly [UN resolution] 1973 allows us. The lawyers have been going through it with a fine-tooth comb but there appear to be some differences in interpretation and it would obviously be helpful to find out exactly where one stands.
"Ideally the training of the rebels should be carried out by an Arab country in the region. But these countries have shown little inclination to do this and one can see pressure growing on Nato members to fulfil this role. My understanding is that the current UN resolution does not stretch to this, so we need to know whether the next step would be to seek another resolution or reinterpret the one we have got."
There is also anxiety among senior officers that the Government is rushing to support a rebel force based in Benghazi which remains disorganised and in a state of disarray.
Two commanders, General Abdel-Fatah Younes and General Khalifa Haftar, each claim to be in charge, while the first sizeable shipment of foreign arms, around 500 Kalashanikov rifles supplied by Qatar, has largely disappeared after being handed over by the revolutionaries' chief trainer, a man without any military experience, to "volunteer fighters".
The Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, accused the West of attempting to justify political assassination in the guise of protecting civilians: "They said they didn't want to kill Gaddafi. Now some officials say, 'Yes, we are trying to kill Gaddafi'. Who permitted this – was there any trial? Who took on the right to execute this man?"
In London, Mr Cameron, in a letter to the Conservative MP Bill Cash, stated: "We don't rule out supplying lethal equipment, but we haven't decided to do so." Mr Cash commented: "The Government's policy seems to be as clear as mud."
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