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E.U. no longer recognizes Gaddafi as Libya's leader but resists bolder steps

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, people in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 11, 2011; 9:51 PM

BRUSSELS - European governments declared Friday that Moammar Gaddafi can no longer be considered the leader of Libya and must step down immediately, but they stopped short of formally recognizing the Libyan rebel movement or endorsing military action to support its armed struggle.

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The cautious steps, at an emergency European Union summit, represented a setback for President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who had pushed for a bold stand that would put Europe more actively on the rebel side and encourage its ragtag fighters as they seek to beat back advancing counterattacks by Gaddafi's military.

To some extent, Sarkozy was joined by Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain in demanding a muscular stand and support for military preparedness. The two leaders had sent a letter to their E.U. colleagues Thursday appealing for a "clear political signal" from the summit. What emerged with the most clarity, however, was that a majority of the 27-nation European group, although sympathetic to the rebellion, was uncertain what steps to take to help the fight against Gaddafi.

After a day-long debate, the European leaders decided to qualify the rebel movement as a "political interlocutor" in Libya that they "welcome and encourage" in the battles under way in several Libyan cities. This fell well short of Sarkozy's proposal that the European Union join France in recognizing the Benghazi-based Libyan National Council as the country's legitimate representative.

The Europeans also endorsed contingency planning for "all necessary options," including the military options under study by NATO allies. But they declined to specify what actions they favored and underlined that any such moves would have to be shown to be necessary, have a legal basis and be endorsed by regional governments.

The continent's caution was similar to that displayed by the Obama administration in Washington. In fact, its language on the conditions for military action was taken from White House statements and NATO deliberations on the other side of Brussels.

On both sides of the Atlantic, leaders were waiting to see what comes of an Arab League meeting Saturday in Cairo and consultations underway at U.N. headquarters in New York for a possible Security Council resolution.

France has advocated robust planning for military operations, if necessary and if the Security Council approves. Sarkozy, explaining the E.U. stand, said what he and the other leaders have in mind as the trigger for any military operation is large-scale use of Gadaffi's military aircraft against civilian populations.

"What would people have said if Europe, even before thinking it over, had renounced all kinds of military action in Libya?" he asked.

In more than three weeks of fighting, Gaddafi's air force has mounted repeated attacks against rebel forces and strategic targets such as ammunition dumps or oil facilities. But no massive strikes have been reported so far against civilians.

A no-fly zone, one of the proposals most discussed, is not a practical solution because of its complexity in a large, desert country, Sarkozy said. And, he added, NATO is not the right group to consider solutions to the Libyan crisis because it is a military organization widely untrusted in the Arab world.

Several nations have hesitated at the prospect of military action. Russia and China, both permanent Security Council members with veto power, have indicated they would find it hard to support any foreign military intervention in Libya's crisis.


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