Nations weigh imposing no-fly zone on Libya

The Arab League expressed support for a no-fly zone to prevent Qaddafi's forces from carrying out air strikes in Libya, while other countries debated the military action.

Heidi Levine/SIPA Press/Newscom
Rebel fighters advance on the front line against Libyan government forces on March 2 in Al Brega, Libya. The rebels drove out troops loyal to President Muammar Qaddafi from the coastal town after the government forces had taken it overnight.

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US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned Congress Wednesday of the dangers of imposing a no-fly zone in Libya, a recent request by Libyan rebels who have been fighting against forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Secretary Gates’s criticism of the proposed no-fly zone came as the United States, several Arab nations, China, and Russia deliberated whether to intervene in the growing violence in Libya.

Testifying before the House Appropriations Committee in Washington, Gates admonished “loose talk” on the possibility of military intervention in Libya that did not take into consideration the required commitment of such intervention.

“Let’s just call a spade a spade,” Gates said, according to The New York Times. “A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That’s the way you do a no-fly zone. And then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down. But that’s the way it starts.”

Gates added that an attack on Libya’s air defenses would be “a big operation in a big country.” Other sources queried by The New York Times concurred with Gates on the scope of the operation.

Officials interviewed said they believed that Colonel Qaddafi — who has been defiant during the crisis — would actively oppose a no-flight zone, perhaps even firing on American or other Western aircraft. That would force the West to respond with attacks on Libya’s surface-to-air missile sites, air defense radars and combat aircraft. The whole operation would require hundreds of aircraft, based on American aircraft carriers and perhaps neighboring NATO countries. Even though Libya’s air force would be no match for American piloting skills and warplanes, Libya’s Soviet-designed surface-to-air missiles present a significant risk. During the 1986 bombing of Tripoli, at least one American plane was shot down.

The prospect of imposing a no-fly zone on Libya has been a consideration for more than a week, but the proposal is becoming more concrete now that aerial attacks on Libya's opposition are being reported. Agence France-Presse reported air strikes on the oil port town of Brega on Thursday after fierce fighting Wednesday.

The White House has thus far been reluctant to show support specifically for a no-fly zone, calling it just one of several options on the table for curbing the violence that has exploded in Libya.

“We are closely using all of our resources to monitor what is happening in Libya to make sure that perpetrators of human rights abuses and atrocities against peaceful civilians are held accountable for their actions,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday afternoon. “We continue to examine the possibility of a no-fly zone, as we do other options.”

Meanwhile, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini expressed support for the idea, telling the Il Messaggero newspaper in Rome that a no-fly zone could help protect the lives of Libyans.

"In the Balkans, it had important results: it prevented Milosevic's planes from bombing unarmed populations," Frattini said, according to the Associated Press. "I believe it could be successful also in Libya, because it would prevent bombing in Cireniaica and the areas taken from [Qaddafi's] control."

But Russian NATO Ambassador Dmitry Rogozin has made his country's opposition to the proposal clear, and Russia's approval is needed if NATO forces are to be used because use of NATO forces requires approval from the UN Security Council, where Russia has veto power.

"If someone in Washington is seeking a blitzkrieg in Libya, it is a serious mistake because any use of military force outside the NATO responsibility zone will be considered a violation of international law," Rogozin told Russia's Interfax news agency in Brussels.

"A ban on the national air force or civil aviation to fly over their own territory is still a serious interference into the domestic affairs of another country, and at any rate it requires a resolution of the U.N. Security Council," Rogozin said Tuesday.

The UN Security Council has already taken several actions against Qaddafi, approving on Saturday an arms embargo and travel ban and recommending to the International Criminal Court that it investigate Qaddafi and his regime for possible crimes against humanity, the AP added.

China also seemed opposed to imposing the no-fly zone, outlining several principles that indicated it wanted further diplomatic actions, Bloomberg reported.

“We believe that this political crisis should be resolved through peaceful means such as dialogue,” Li Baodong, China’s ambassador to the UN, told Bloomberg Wednesday. “We respect the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Libya.”

Li added that China would “heed and respect the opinions and positions of Arab countries and African countries.”

Bloomberg said the last principle left "room for maneuvering." The Arab League has said it is may be willing to work with the African Union to impose a no-fly zone, although it rejected "direct outside military intervention" the region, according to Al Jazeera.

"The situation in Libya is sorrowful and it is not correct that we accept it or live with it," said Amr Moussa, the Arab League's secretary general, according to Al Jazeera. "The Arab League will not stand with its hands tied while the blood of the brotherly Libyan people is spilt.”

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