France, Britain urge more aggressive Libya military campaign

At a meeting with European foreign ministers today in Qatar, Libyan rebels complained that the international military campaign has slowed since the US relinquished its leading role.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
An antiaircraft gun is seen as volunteer fighters attend a weapon training session at a military camp in Benghazi, Libya, on April 13. Britain pressured other NATO members to beef up ground attacks in Libya on Wednesday as foreign ministers met in Qatar to try to open the deadlock in the country's civil war. Libya's rebels have shown themselves incapable of consolidating any advance against Muammar Qaddafi's better armed and trained army on the eastern front, despite NATO strikes.

NATO’s effective prosecution of the Libya campaign is under fire by France and Britain for a lack of intensity and speed – with some experts in Paris saying it takes eight hours to authorize a Libyan airstrike.

A week after US forces withdrew from leading combat air operations in Libya, a Europe-led NATO coalition faces both military and political challenges in a rapidly evolving conflict in which Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s forces appear to be on the offensive and rebels in disarray.

In Doha, Qatar, foreign ministers from the coalition are meeting today with the Libyan rebels. They're working on plans for an interim political council and financial assistance for them – even as the French and British call for increased attacks on ground targets. The meeting will also discuss the possibility of giving "defensive weapons" to the rebels.

Mahmoud Shammam, a rebel spokesman, said the Libyan opposition would like to see the US retake its lead role, and also for NATO to move more swiftly, according to the Associated Press. "When the Americans were involved the mission was very active and it was more leaning toward protecting the civilians."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain has “sent more ground-strike aircraft in order to protect civilians. We do look to other countries to do the same, if necessary, over time. 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 defense into ground-strike capability.”

With the US off the front line, France and Britain are ostensibly taking the lead, calling for more planes, missiles, and ammunition. The hasty coalition is still adjusting to its mission and tensions are not all resolved. British Prime Minster David Cameron is expected to meet tonight in Paris with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Currently, jets from France, Britain, Canada, and Norway are hitting ground forces and Qaddafi’s weaponry at a rate of about 70 flights a day, NATO officials say. Qaddafi’s forces continue to besiege Misrata, and NATO strikes now appear crucial in helping rebel forces simply to survive in Ajdabiya, the last city on the road to their Benghazi stronghold, and to avoid a rout.

Yesterday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe sharply called for more help in ground strikes rather than merely policing a no-fly zone. “NATO wanted to take over military operations, and we accepted that,” he told French radio Tuesday. “But it must play its full role, that is to say it must prevent Qaddafi from using heavy weapons against the civilian population.”

The French weekly Canard Enchaine today quoted an unnamed French military source that said the NATO headquarters in Naples does not always have the authority to call on a member of the coalition to deploy attack air craft: "Between the request for a strike and the acknowledgment of a threat justifying its execution, there is an average delay of eight hours,” the source was quoted as saying.

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