France and Britain urge stronger NATO action in Libya

April 13, 2011 - 0:0

PARIS —France and Britain urged NATO on Tuesday to intensify airstrikes against Col. Muammar el-Gaddafi’s forces and called on the alliance to do more to shield noncombatants from loyalist attacks.

The remarks could well embolden rebels who have proved unable to hold on to terrain captured from loyalist forces in weeks of advances and retreats along the coastal highway leading westward from the insurgents’ redoubts in eastern Libya.
The comments by William Hague, the British foreign secretary, and Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister, also appeared to signal a rift within the alliance only eight days after it assumed command from the United States for the air campaign over Libya.
NATO rejected the French and British criticism.
“NATO is conducting its military operations in Libya with vigor within the current mandate. The pace of the operations is determined by the need to protect the population,” it said on Tuesday, according to Reuters.
The French and British comments coincided with a swirl of diplomatic activity as the battlefield situation offered neither the rebels nor their adversaries little immediate prospect of a definitive outcome.
Juppé declared in an earlier radio interview: “NATO must play its role in full.”
“It wanted to take the operational lead, we accepted that,” he said. “It must play its role today which means preventing Qaddafi from using heavy weapons to bomb populations.” Currently, he said, the intensity of the air campaign was “not enough.”
The comments by the two ministers seem certain to embolden the rebels in eastern Libya who have called for the allies to hit Colonel Qaddafi’s forces harder. France, Britain and the United States sent their planes on the first sorties of the air campaign in Libya last month.
France was also the first country to recognize the rebel administration in Benghazi and, along with Britain, played a leading role in the diplomacy behind the United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing NATO airstrikes.
Juppé’s remarks seemed to underscore a broader frustration in the West and within the region that months after Arab uprisings toppled the autocratic leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, the clamor for democratic reform has stalled, with popular uprisings facing repression in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, Libya and elsewhere.
The British and French comments came role after alliance warplanes were involved in two deadly friendly-fire incidents last week, just as rebels seeking cover to advance against Colonel Gaddafi’s forces complained that the alliance was not providing sufficient air support.
On Monday, in the eastern city of Ajdabiya, a rebel fighter, Khaled Mohammed, said the westernmost rebel positions were about 25 miles west of the city. He said that under orders from rebel commanders, the fighters were not advancing beyond that point to lessen the chances that NATO warplanes would mistakenly bomb them.
The visit by the African Union negotiators to rebels in Benghazi came hours after the delegation had met in Tripoli with Colonel Gaddafi.