Washington: Allied forces in Libya are not coordinating with the rebels and the mission remains simply to protect civilians from attack or threat of attack, a senior US official said on Sunday.
Briefing journalists in Washington after NATO agreed to take the helm of Libyan military operations, the official was asked several times to clarify the mandate as coalition air strikes helped to rout Muammar Gaddafi`s forces.
"The mandate is very simple, it is to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas from attack, and any forces that are attacking or threatening to attack civilians will be subject to targeting by NATO in exactly the same way," the official said.
UN Security Council resolution 1973 -- the fruit of intense diplomacy to avoid Russian and Chinese vetoes while winning Arab support -- allows for "all necessary means" to support the limited aim of protecting Libyan civilians.
But coalition air strikes have struck Gaddafi`s ground forces as well as targets in the capital Tripoli and the strongman`s hometown of Sirte, prompting accusations that the alliance is over-reaching its mandate.
Pressed on whether the coalition was liaising with the rebels on the ground, the senior US official said: "In terms of coordinating with rebel forces, no. Our mission is to protect civilians.”
"It`s not about the rebels, it`s about the protection of civilian populations. That`s what UNSC 1973 has mandated and that`s the mandate that NATO is now taking on."
Questioned on the apparent contradiction in rebels now attacking towns held by Gaddafi forces and perhaps putting civilian lives at risk, the official demurred.
"It`s been very clear up to this point that it is the regime of Colonel Gaddafi that is engaged in horrendous acts against civilians and therefore it is those forces that are being targeted," the official said.
Asked if civilians in Sirte, which Libyan state television said came under attack from coalition air raids late Sunday, were currently being threatened or attacked, the official said: "I don`t follow the operational details so I don`t know exactly where we are on this."
The official said it was "open to the commanders, they`ve got a clear mission and they now need to execute it. Right now all the threatening and striking of civilians is being done by Gaddafi forces and that`s the focus."