Nato ministers meet on Libya as air strikes intensify

North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) foreign ministers gathered on Thursday in Berlin amid calls for increased air strikes on Muammar Gaddafi’s forces and growing divisions among world powers over whether to arm Libya’s rebels.

The meeting came as Nato planes put on a show of force on Thursday above the Libyan front line, with rebels reporting they were bombing targets on the road leading west, towards the key oil town of Brega, and beyond that Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte and, farther, the capital Tripoli.

France and Britain agreed to step up military pressure on Gaddafi’s forces after an international contact group on Libya meeting in Doha promised the rebels cash and the means to defend themselves.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed on increased military pressure at a working dinner in Paris ahead of the Berlin meeting, a source in the French presidency said.

“All means must be made available” in the fight against Gaddafi, the source said, amid efforts by London and Paris to step up pressure on their Nato allies to help defeat his regime.

The diplomatic moves came amid rising friction within the alliance over the Nato air campaign in Libya that has so far failed to change the balance of power on the ground.

‘Support the opposition’
In Doha, the international contact group on Libya decided after a daylong gathering Wednesday to set up a “temporary financial mechanism” to aid the rebels seeking to oust Gaddafi.

It “affirmed that Gaddafi’s regime has lost all legitimacy and he should leave and allow the Libyan people to decide their future”.

While there was a consensus that Gaddafi must go, differences emerged over arming the rebels.

The rebel leadership said in a tweet: “We’re discussing weapons deals with countries that officially recognised the council; we’ve been getting positive replies.”

The meeting’s final statement said “participants in the contact group agreed to continue to provide support to the opposition, including material support”.

Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani told reporters this refers to “humanitarian means, and also means of defence. And that means that the Libyan people should get the means that they need to defend themselves”.

But he seemed to acknowledge that this view was not universally held. He said “people gathered here have different interpretations”, while reiterating that “the first thing that the Libyan people need is self defence”.

‘No military solution’
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said “either we make it possible for these people to defend themselves, or we withdraw from our obligation to support defending the population of Libya”.

The UN resolution “does not prohibit supplying arms … for self defence”, Frattini said.

Belgium expressed opposition to arming the rebels, while Germany insisted that there could be “no military solution”.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was adamant on Thursday that a United Nations Security Council resolution on Libya did not authorise the use of military force.

“The Security Council resolutions should be implemented,” Medvedev told reporters after a summit with the leaders of Brazil, India, China and South Africa in southern China.

“They should be implemented in accordance with their letter and spirit,” said the Russian president.

“What have we got as a result [of voting on Libya at the Council]? As a result, we essentially have got a military operation. The resolution says nothing about it.”

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived in Berlin for the meetings on Thursday and Friday, issued a statement denouncing what she said were continuing attacks on civilians by Gaddafi’s forces.

“In recent days, we have received disturbing reports of renewed atrocities conducted by Gaddafi’s forces,” she said.

After launching the first salvos to protect Libya’s population nearly a month ago, Britain and France are pressing their partners to contribute more combat jets to protect the population from Gaddafi’s forces.

Only six out of Nato’s 28 members are conducting air strikes while French and British warplanes are carrying out half of the flights, a French official said.

As the Berlin meeting was getting under way, the woosh of warplanes flying too high to be seen was nearly constant above Ajdabiya, the eastern Libya town that has been fought over the past week by rebels and forces loyal to Gaddafi.

Previously, their presence was only rarely heard.

Rebels in Ajdabiya told Agence France-Presse (AFP) their commanders were ordering them to sit tight in the town because Nato planes were carrying out an intensive bombing campaign against Gaddafi’s forces.

“We can’t go forward. With the planes flying, it’s risky. Nato tells us don’t go any further,” said one insurgent, Alteira Yussef (30).

‘Vision for Libya’
A Western official speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity said French, British and Italian military attaches were now in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and they were providing indirect information about the situation at the front line to Nato.

Mahmud Jibril, who handles foreign policy for the rebels’ Transitional National Council, was expected in Washington to meet with senior state and defence department officials as well as with congressional leaders.

“These meetings will allow us to continue to have a better sense of the opposition and the TNC and its vision for Libya,” state department spokesperson Mark Toner said.

The final statement in Doha said the parties “agreed to set up a temporary financial mechanism to act as a means for the Transitional National Council and international community to manage aid revenues and secure short-term financial needs”. It gave no figures.

Mahmud Shammam, a spokesperson for the rebels, said “we will not use this money at all to buy weapons; it will be used for the basic needs of the Libyan people”. — AFP

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Laurent Thomet
Laurent Thomet
AFP China deputy bureau chief.

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