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London to host political meeting on Libya

By SLOBODAN LEKIC
The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 23, 2011; 6:47 PM

BRUSSELS -- U.S., European, and Arab and African officials have been invited to London next week for political talks about Libya, even as NATO remained deadlocked Wednesday over its role in enforcing a no-fly zone meant to protect Libyan civilians.

France and Britain, in announcing the London talks, appeared to be laying the groundwork for separating the international intervention into military and political sides. The military side could be managed by NATO, while the political side managed by a different group that would include Arab countries and be seen less as Western interventionism.

The U.N. Security Council authorized the no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians after leader Moammar Gadhafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who wanted him to leave after 42 years in power.

In Paris, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe announced that a "contact group," including the United States, France, Britain and other countries involved in efforts to settle Libya's tensions, will meet in London on Tuesday.

He told French legislators the gathering is aimed at showing that the "political piloting" of the international operation in Libya is not being handled by NATO, but by a broader group of countries. He said the African Union and the Arab League will be invited so a leadership structure can be put in place following initial command by the United States.

"Today we have agreed that this leadership structure would be both NATO and the European Union," Juppe said. "NATO for planning and operational supervision, and the EU for everything related to humanitarian action."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed that a wide group of nations will be invited to the meeting in London.

"It is critical that the international community continues to take united and coordinated action in response to the unfolding crisis," he said. "The meeting will form a contact group of nations to take forward this work."

Italy, meanwhile, which has insisted that NATO have a clear leadership role in running the Libya operation, said Wednesday it was time to "go back to the rules" with a unified chain of command under NATO.

In a speech to parliament, Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said it had been necessary to start out with an "urgent" move to stop the slaughter of Libyan civilians by Gadhafi's forces, but that the time had come to "return to the rules with a single chain of command unified under NATO."

Earlier this week, Frattini said Italy would review its decision to let coalition forces use its seven military bases as launch pads for air operations over Libya if NATO didn't take over command.

France's Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said in an interview with French newspaper Le Figaro on Wednesday night that while there are no "ego problems" among the U.S., French and British forces involved, "the issue of a political command poses a major problem," hence the need for a contact group.

A tentative draft outline of the arrangement would leave political supervision of the effort in the hands of the international coalition while transferring command of military operations from the United States to NATO, according to diplomats in Brussels who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

NATO's 28 members were in the final phases of drawing up the outline, the diplomats said, but they failed again to reach an agreement on Wednesday on the alliance's possible role in enforcing the U.N.-authorized no-fly zone.

EU leaders will hold a summit Thursday-Friday in Brussels at which Libya is expected to figure heavily in discussion. Among concerns are whether the Libyan opposition governing council is up to the task of running a democratic country. France's defense minister, in the Figaro interview, expressed confidence in the group, even comparing them to the wartime French Resistance.

NATO envoys will meet again Thursday to try and nail down rules determining circumstances under which the military alliance can use force, a NATO diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity, since he was not authorized to speak about internal deliberations to reporters.

"Its about the relationship of the no-fly zone and the protection of civilians, how broad it should be," the diplomat said.

"There is a sense that views are converging on a possible NATO role to enforce the no-fly zone," NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said.

In Ankara, Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned that the rules of engagement must be restricted to protecting civilians, enforcing the arms embargo and no-fly zone, and the provision of humanitarian aid. This would exclude any further air strikes against Gadhafi's ground forces.

"It is a framework that is not offensive," Davutoglu said.

Turkey, NATO's sole Muslim member, has been seen as holding up agreement on a command structure for a no-fly zone, but diplomats say an agreement is gradually emerging about the role NATO would play, after the United States - which has effectively commanded the operation until now - reiterated that it was committed to the transition.

Spanish Defense Minister Carme Chacon endorsed the proposal for handing over control of the Libya operation to a political committee. "We are comfortable with that," she said.

Germany is in a more difficult situation. The government, which is refusing to participate in the no-fly operation, approved on Wednesday sending air crews to man NATO's surveillance planes over Afghanistan after withdrawing troops from the alliance's Mediterranean Sea missions to avoid involvement in Libya.

The government's decision to send up to 300 troops to man AWACS surveillance planes over Afghanistan is intended to help ease the strain on other NATO members, who may need to deploy to the Mediterranean.

Military experts say coordinating the enforcement of a no-fly zone over a nation the size of Libya requires a specialized and experienced staff of several hundred people.

The mission to provide round-the-clock coverage of Libyan airspace would require not just fighter planes patrolling the skies, but also attack jets armed with anti-radar missiles to suppress any threat from the ground. It would entail several aerial tankers flying circular patterns over the Mediterranean to refuel the warplanes.

The United States is one of the few nations with the operational headquarters capable of controlling such a complex mission. None of NATO's European members have that capability and therefore rely on the alliance to provide it.

"The best outcome would be to have NATO handle military coordination, but hand political decisions to an ad hoc council of states participating in the coalition, including Arab countries," said Francois Heisbourg, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, a think tank funded by France's Defense Ministry.

Also Wednesday, NATO warships started patrolling off Libya's coast to enforce the U.N. arms embargo.

If NATO assumes responsibility for the enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya, this would be controlled from NATO's operational center in Naples, which is also in control of the maritime blockade.

NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the naval action was to "cut off the flow of arms and mercenaries. We have intelligence reports that this activity is continuing, so it is quite important that NATO take action to stop this," she said.

The operation will be similar to a naval mission carried out by NATO ships in the Adriatic Sea during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia that also enforced an arms embargo.

The European Union agreed Wednesday to increase financial pressure on Gadhafi by extending their assets freeze to the National Oil Corporation but went beyond U.N. requirements by adding five subsidiaries of the company.

Meanwhile, the French and Spanish interior ministers said Wednesday that the EU should help Italy cope with an influx of refugees from Libya.

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Associated Press writers Greg Keller and Angela Charlton in Paris, Daniel Woolls and Harold Heckle in Madrid, Selcan Hacaoglu and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Raf Casert in Brussels, Nicole Winfield in Rome, David Stringer in London, and Nataliya Vasiljeva in Moscow contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Associated Press