NATO vows ‘robust’ arms embargo on Gaddafi

Turkey supports move; Western air strikes target residential, military areas in Tripoli, Tajoura, sate TV says; civilian death toll reaches almost 100.

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
March 24, 2011 21:49
4 minute read.
Libyans standing on a tank

libya tank celebration 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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NATO will use force if necessary to enforce a “robust” arms blockade on Libya, the operation head said Thursday after Turkey – the military alliance’s only Muslim member – appeared to firm up its previously hesitant support.

Coalition warplanes struck targets deep inside the country on Thursday, but failed to prevent tanks from reentering the rebel-held city of Misrata and besieging its main hospital. A Libyan government spokesman said the civilian death toll had reached almost 100 and accused Western governments of fighting on the side of the rebels. Western forces deny that any have been killed in the strikes.

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“We will ensure the free flow of legitimate shipping which the people of Libya need,” V.-Adm. Rinaldo Veri, head of Operation Unified Protector, told a news conference at NATO’s Southern Europe headquarters in Naples.

Reuters reported that Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had agreed with NATO allies on conditions for the military bloc to assume full control of the operation. Davutoglu reportedly said NATO would take full control of military activity within a day or two.

Earlier Thursday, Turkey’s parliament approved a government decision to join the NATO naval operation, agreeing to send four frigates, a submarine and a support vessel.

The United States wants to hand over command of the air campaign to NATO within days, but Turkey’s insistence on conditions has held up any agreement on the issue.

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Turkey wants NATO to have sole control of military operations and does not want to see the alliance conducting offensive operations that could harm civilians or to be in charge of enforcing a nofly zone while a smaller coalition’s planes are bombing Libyan forces.

On Thursday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a swipe at France, saying that the same people who were reluctant to let Turkey into the European Union now spoke in terms of “crusades” in Libya, a reference to a loose comment by the French interior minister.

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He voiced suspicion that some seeking to act outside NATO had their eyes on Libya’s oil, while President Abdullah Gul said the coalition lacked an agreed policy, planning and exit strategy, and that Libya could be “looted” like Iraq.

The African Union invited representatives of Gaddafi’s government, the Libyan opposition and others to talks in Addis Ababa on Friday, the union’s Chairman Jean Ping said. Ping said Thursday that Gaddafi wanted to send his prime minister and that officials from the EU, UN Security Council, and neighboring Arab countries had also been invited to Ethiopia to discuss the Libyan crisis.

In Naples, Veri said his force had begun operations on Wednesday evening with ships already in the area, but had not detected any attempt to breach the embargo so far.

He said Italy, Britain, Greece, the United States, Canada, Spain and Turkey had already contributed or committed ships or other military assets and that he hoped more would join.

Veri noted that UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorized “any means” to prevent arms or mercenaries from entering Libya. If forces from participating nations encountered any resistance, “the use of force may be necessary,” he said. “My task group commanders are empowered to enforce the embargo robustly all the way up to a full boarding.”

He acknowledged, however, that NATO could not hermetically seal off Libya or succeed in fully blocking arms or mercenaries.

“The maritime route is the easiest way of getting arms into Libya. What we are doing now is cutting off that area. I know we cannot close all the windows, but one thing for sure is that we are closing the main front door,” he said.

On the ground, Gaddafi’s tanks rolled back into Misrata under cover of darkness and shelled the area near the hospital, which was also under fire from government snipers, residents and rebels said.

Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said strikes had hit military and civilian compounds in the central Jufrah region and other targets in Tripoli, Misrata and south of Benghazi in the east, home to an emerging alternative government.

Libyan officials took journalists to a Tripoli hospital to see 18 male corpses, some charred beyond recognition, saying they were military personnel and civilians killed by Western bombing overnight.

It was the first time foreign reporters had been shown alleged victims of the air strikes, and it was not possible to verify how many were civilians.

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