NATO set to take command of Libya campaign

Turkey, NATO`s sole major Muslim member, opposes Western-led air strikes.

Updated: Mar 27, 2011, 19:15 PM IST

Brussels: NATO looks set to agree to take
command of military operations against Muammar Gaddafi as
France fights to keep political control in the hands of the
US-led "coalition of the willing".

Ambassadors from the 28-nation alliance gather at
headquarters in the late afternoon to mull military plans for
a transfer nailed down only after long days of fraught talks,
over objections raised by France and Turkey.

Pressed by Western powers, notably the United States
and Italy, to take the helm as swiftly as possible, the
alliance was expected to give a thumbs up, possibly approving
and activating immediate engagement, NATO sources said.

At present, the transatlantic organisation is manning
naval operations to enforce an arms embargo against the
Tripoli regime, and has agreed to take to the air to enforce a
no-fly zone to protect civilians against bombings.

But as coalition air strikes pound Gaddafi forces for
a ninth day, tipping the scale to favour insurgents, NATO
ambassadors will scrutinise in detail the rules of engagement
needed "to protect civilians", under UN resolution 1973.

In its landmark ruling, the United Nations approved
"all necessary measures" to safeguard civilians under threat
of attack.

But Turkey, NATO`s sole predominantly Muslim member,
opposes Western-led air strikes.

"If NATO takes on the broader mission, the rules of
engagement will take into account the sensitivities of all
NATO members, including Turkey," said an alliance diplomat who
asked not to be identified.

With decisions at NATO taken by unanimous vote, talks
to pin down the rules have been acrimonious to say the least,
diplomats said.

From the outset, Western nations levered for support
for the campaign from Arab and African states as Turkey, a key
regional player, vowed to "never point a gun at the Libyan
people".

While Ankara late last week finally backed the no-fly
zone and pledged warships to enforce an arms embargo off
Libya`s coast, luring Arab nations into action has been slow,
with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates alone in pledging
fighter jets.

In war-weary United States, President Barack Obama
moved to reassure Americans yesterday, saying "because we
acted quickly, a humanitarian catastrophe has been avoided."

The Canadian appointed to run NATO`s existing Libya
operations from Naples, Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard,
is expected to be instructed to fire at Gaddafi tanks and
troops only to save civilian lives or in self-defence.

"NATO will not take sides," said a diplomatic source.

Another key question to resolve is who will have
political control.

France has warned that flying the mission under the
NATO flag would alienate Arab allies.

PTI