Coalition forces launched a seventh day of air strikes against the regime of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi yesterday but France and Britain insisted a diplomatic solution to the crisis could be reached.
After France’s military chief had predicted the NATO-led campaign would last only “weeks”, President Nicolas Sarkozy said France and Britain were preparing a “political and diplomatic” solution.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague also said he expected NATO to take full command of military operations in Libya “within a matter of days”, after the alliance agreed to enforce a no-fly zone.
He denied the international community was divided over the UN-sanctioned zone and ceasefire, aimed at protecting civilians from Gaddafi’s forces, and said a meeting in London next week would make that clear.
Referring to the London talks next Tuesday, Sarkozy said: “There will certainly be a Franco-British initiative to clearly show the solution is not only military but also political and diplomatic.”
NATO agreed to patrol the no-fly zone as British and French warplanes targeted Gaddafi’s ground forces in the strategic eastern town of Ajdabiya.
“We are taking action as part of a broad international effort to protect civilians against the Gaddafi regime,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said yesterday.
He underlined that NATO’s role was limited to enforcing the no-fly zone, but a senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity in Washington, said the 28-member alliance reached a “political agreement” to command all other operations aimed at protecting civilians – meaning strikes against Gaddafi’s ground forces.
The news came as anti-aircraft fire raked the Libyan skies overnight, with at least three explosions shaking the capital and its eastern suburb of Tajura, AFP journalists reported.
At least one blast was heard from the centre of the city, while others came from Tajura, home to military bases, an AFP journalist reported.
Britain’s Defence Secretary Liam Fox said yesterday that Tornado jets launched missiles overnight at Libyan armoured vehicles in Ajdabiya, 860km from Tripoli.
A French fighter jet also destroyed an artillery battery overnight outside Ajdabiya, which was still in rebel hands, France’s defence chief Admiral Edouard Guillaud said, noting the allied operation would not drag on for months.
“I doubt that it will be (over) in days, I think it will be weeks, and I hope it won’t be in months,” he told France Info radio station yesterday.
Rebels fighting to retake Ajdabiya, which sits at a junction on roads leading from rebel strongholds Benghazi and Tobruk, were being held off by loyalist armoured vehicles at the gates of the town.
On Thursday, a Gaddafi fighter plane that had dared to flout the no-fly zone was swiftly punished when a French fighter destroyed the jet after it landed in Misrata, about 214km east of Tripoli.
Libyan state television said “civilian and military sites in Tripoli and Tajura” had come under fire from “long-range missiles”.
Fighting also raged in rebel-held Misrata. A doctor treating the wounded at a hospital said attacks by Gaddafi forces since March 18 “have killed 109 people and wounded 1300 others, 81 of whom are in serious condition”.
Coalition air strikes since last Saturday have been targeting air defences in a bid to protect civilians under the terms of a UN resolution.
The strikes also provide cover for a rag-tag band of rebels seeking to oust Gaddafi after more than four decades in power, but who are disorganised and out-gunned by pro-regime forces.
The Pentagon said 12 countries are now taking part in the coalition seeking to enforce the no-fly zone – including two Arab nations, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which announced it would contribute 12 aircraft in the coming days.
Allied diplomats spent yesterday negotiating how to coordinate the campaign against Gaddafi.
“We have agreed, along with our NATO allies, to transition command and control for the no-fly zone over Libya to NATO,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after meeting with President Barack Obama and the US national security team.
“All 28 allies have also now authorised military authorities to develop an operations plan for NATO to take on the broader civilian protection mission under Resolution 1973.”
Clinton said “significant progress” had been made in just five days, but that the “danger is far from over”, and Gaddafi’s forces “remain a serious threat to the safety of the people”.
She also underscored “crucial” Arab support for the operation, and praised Qatar and the Emirates for joining the coalition.
A high-level delegation sent by the embattled Libyan leader joined African Union talks on the Libya crisis in Addis Ababa, which also included EU, UN, Arab League and Islamic Conference representatives.
The five-member team from Tripoli turned up for the talks following an invitation from AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping, but an invitation to the Libyan opposition to attend had not been taken up by early afternoon.
“The aim is to foster an exchange of views in order to take action on the situation in Libya and to seek the ways and means towards a swift solution to the crisis,” Ping said.
EU leaders also urged the world community to tighten the noose on Gaddafi by ensuring Libya’s oil and gas revenues “do not reach” his regime.
Tightening sanctions on oil and gas was necessary “to ensure Gaddafi does not pay his mercenaries with oil resources”, Sarkozy said.
A government spokesman in Tripoli said almost 100 civilians had been killed since coalition air strikes began last Saturday, a figure that could not be independently confirmed.
The US general in charge of the operation, General Carter Ham, said coalition forces imposing the no-fly zone “cannot be sure” there have been no civilian deaths, but are trying to be “very precise”.