A group of Western powers, Middle Eastern and African states called for the first time on Wednesday for Muammar Gaddafi to step aside, but North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) countries squabbled publicly over stepping up air strikes to help topple him.
In a victory for Britain and France, who are leading the air campaign in Libya and pushed for an unequivocal call for regime change, the “contact group” of 16 European and Middle Eastern nations, plus the United Nations, the Arab League and the African Union, said Gaddafi must go.
“Gaddafi and his regime has lost all legitimacy and he must leave power, allowing the Libyan people to determine their future,” they said in a joint statement.
The wording was much tougher than at a previous conference two weeks ago and gave stronger backing to rebels fighting to end Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.
Participants said they would work to create a financial mechanism to help the rebels run the eastern region they control.
The group said the rebel national council, “in contrast with the current regime … is a legitimate interlocutor, representing the aspirations of the Libyan people”.
It called for a political settlement to be decided by the Libyan people, an end to attacks against civilians, and the withdrawal of government forces from towns they had occupied or besieged, including the beleaguered western city of Misrata.
The group also agreed to provide “material support” for the rebels. Although the statement did not give details, diplomats said some nations might interpret this as supplying arms — a key request of the outgunned insurgents.
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani appeared to suggest the Gulf nation could consider supplying arms, saying material support could include “all the other needs, including defence equipment”.
Qatar is a leading Arab supporter of the uprising which broke out a month ago in Libya, inspired by popular revolts that toppled the leaders of neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt.
News from the front
At the eastern front on Wednesday, rebels at Ajdabiyah said they were exchanging rocket fire with Gaddafi’s forces from a point about 40km east of the long-contested oil port of Brega, which the government holds.
Rebels also reported more heavy fighting in Misrata, their only bastion in western Libya, and said they were making progress against government forces besieging the city.
Libyan television said Nato planes had bombed Misrata’s main street, the scene of repeated battles between rebel defenders and government troops. It said people were killed, without giving details. The television also said alliance planes had attacked Gaddafi’s birthplace of Sirte, east of Misrata.
Divisions within Nato
While there was agreement in Doha on the principle of removing Gaddafi, there were divisions over how to proceed.
Britain and France, western Europe’s two main military powers, are delivering most of the air strikes on Gaddafi’s armour, with other Nato states playing a smaller role. There is increasing frustration in Paris and London that air strikes have neither tipped the balance of the war in favour of the rebels nor ended devastating shelling of Misrata.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague called for more alliance members to join attacks on ground targets and his French counterpart, Alain Juppe, called for heavier military pressure on Gaddafi’s troops to convince him to leave power.
But Belgian Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere said the March 17 UN resolution authorising Nato action in Libya — to protect civilians from Gaddafi’s government forces — ruled out arming civilians and he saw no need to boost air power there.
Reflecting frustration that Nato air power has not been more decisive, Juppe called for better coordination with rebel forces on the ground in choosing targets. On Tuesday Juppe said Nato had not done enough to stop Gaddafi bombarding Misrata, where hundreds of civilians are reported to have died in a long siege.
His remarks seemed to be at least partly aimed at the United States after President Barack Obama ordered his forces to take a back seat in the Libya campaign, depriving the alliance of powerful ground attack aircraft stationed in the Mediterranean.
French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet told Parliament in Paris on Tuesday that without US ground attack aircraft joining in the strikes, Nato would not be able to loosen Gaddafi’s noose around towns like Misrata and Zintan.
Washington said on Wednesday it had continued to strike Libyan air defences after Nato took command on March 31.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon underlined the humanitarian disaster caused by the war, telling the meeting that as many as 3.6-million people, or more than half the population, could need assistance.
Rebels attending the Doha meeting said they expected more support, saying Nato was using “minimum” power and needed to step up attacks on Gaddafi’s heavy weapons. The rebels said they would ask for $1.5-billion in aid for civilians.
Rebel spokesperson Mahmud Awad Shammam said the rebels wanted to increase exports of crude oil to secure humanitarian aid rather than cash. Gaddafi’s forces have attacked oil fields in the rebel east to choke off exports and Shammam said the insurgents were only exporting a minimal amount.
The contact group, whose members include Qatar, Iraq, Turkey and other Middle East nations as well as Nato members, will meet again in Italy in early May.
Germany said it had expelled five Libyan diplomats for intimidating the country’s citizens living there. — Reuters