NATO warships will begin patrolling off Libya’s coast to enforce the UN arms embargo today, as the alliance appeared set to assume responsibility for the no-fly zone over the North African nation to protect civilians.
Diplomats said an agreement is gradually emerging about how NATO would take responsibility for the flight ban, after the US – which has effectively commanded the operation until now – reiterated that it was committed to the transition.
The compromise proposal would see NATO take a central role in the military operation guided by a political committee of foreign ministers from the West and the Arab world. NATO’s top decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, has already approved military plans for enforcing the no-fly zone and may decide to start them later today, officials said.
Spanish Defence 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.
Military experts say co-ordinating the enforcement of a no-fly zone over a nation the size of Libya requires a specialised and experienced staff of several hundred. The UN Security Council authorised the no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians after leader Muammar Gaddafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who wanted him to leave after 42 years in power.
The mission to provide round-the-clock coverage of Libyan airspace would require not just fighter planes patrolling the skies, but 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 them. At least one and probably two AWACS airborne surveillance and control aircraft would also have to be nearby to monitor and coordinate the operation.
The US 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.
If NATO assumes responsibility for the enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya and the UN arms embargo against Libya, this would be controlled from its operational centre in Naples, a NATO official said.
The allies agreed yesterday to organise the naval mission, which initially will consist of two NATO naval flotillas that routinely patrol the Mediterranean. They are made up of two frigates, six minesweepers and a supply ship. The NATO official said more nations are likely to contribute warships in coming days.
The operation will be similar to a naval mission carried out by NATO ships in the Adriatic Sea during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia that also enforced an arms embargo.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s president called on Gaddafi to step down as soon as possible, saying that would help stop the bloodshed. Abdullah Gul said today such a move would also “deny the opportunity to others to plunder” their country.
Turkey, NATO’s sole Islamic member, has been insisting on a narrow military mandate for a NATO role in the military operation in Libya and assurances that no occupation of Libya will ensue.
In Moscow, the Kremlin passed a measure calling on the UN to impose a ceasefire in Libya and stop the violence against civilians.
No reliable civilian death tolls are available from Libya. Rebels say more than 1000 people have been killed in a month of fighting, while Gaddafi claims the toll stands at 150.