Tripoli: Europe is ready to send an armed force to Libya to ensure delivery of humanitarian aid and Britain said Tuesday it will dispatch senior military officers to advise the opposition — signs that Western nations are inching closer to having troops on Libyan soil.
The proposal by the European Union to deploy the armed force to escort humanitarian aid drew an immediate warning from Moammar Gaddafi`s regime that this would be tantamount to a military operation. France`s foreign minister also said he was hostile to such a deployment.
The new tactics seem to have been spurred by the continued deadlock after two months of fighting between Gaddafi`s army and rebel forces. There has also been growing international concern over the fate of the besieged rebel city of Misrata, where NATO has been unable to halt heavy shelling by Gaddafi`s forces with airstrikes alone.
Misrata, Libya`s third-largest city, has been under siege for nearly two months, with rebels holding on to seaside positions in the port area. In recent days, Libyan troops have pounded the city with shells and rockets. On Tuesday, rebels and troops clashed in central Misrata, and explosions and gunfire were heard.
NATO officials acknowledged Tuesday that they are having trouble destroying Gaddafi`s mortars and rocket launchers from the air, for fear of inadvertently harming civilians in such strikes.
"It`s not a conventional war," said Adm. Giampaolo Di Paola, chairman of NATO`s military committee. He would not say just how much of the regime`s firepower has been eliminated or put out of action by NATO`s operations so far.
The fighting in Libya has been deadlocked for the past month. Gaddafi is holding on in the west, while the rebels control the east. NATO airstrikes have kept Gaddafi loyalists in check, but the rebels, poorly trained group with little military experience, have not been able to score military gains, either.
As the allies seek ways to break the battlefield stalemate, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain will send a team of up to 20 senior military advisers to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi to help organize the country`s haphazard opposition forces.
Hague insisted the advisers would not be involved in supplying weapons to the rebels or in assisting their attacks on Gaddafi`s forces. He said the advisers would work with British diplomats already cooperating with the National Transitional Council, the political wing of the rebel movement, which has been officially recognized by Italy, France and Qatar.
Britain has said it would not become involved in directly supplying weapons to Libya`s rebels; it has already sent non-lethal support, such as 1,000 sets of body armor and 100 satellite phones.
The EU, meanwhile, said it could deploy an armed force to Libya within days to ensure the delivery of humanitarian supplies, said Michael Mann, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
Mann said a "concept of operations" has been approved by the European Union`s 27 countries, outlining various possible courses of action. But Mann said the details of the operation, including how many people and what equipment would be needed, would await the specifics of any U.N. request.
The EU has no standing army, and the personnel and equipment would have be donated by member countries.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he is "totally hostile to the deployment of troops on the ground."
Juppe made his remarks at a lunch for diplomatic journalists, which was reported on the website of the daily Le Figaro. He was responding to a question over a proposal by the head of the foreign affairs commission in France`s lower house to send 200-300 special forces "who wouldn`t be ground combat troops" to help designate targets for NATO planes.
Juppe said the rebel forces "can play this role without it being necessary to deploy troops on the ground."
The leader of the rebels` transitional government, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, will meet in Paris with President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday, the president`s office announced.
Ashton made the offer of military aid to protect humanitarian groups on April 1, but so far no U.N request has been forthcoming.
Over the weekend, the U.N. reached agreement with Gaddafi`s government on carrying out aid operations in areas of Libya he controls. A key destination for such aid would be Misrata, where hospitals were said to be overwhelmed with wounded.
Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim, asked about the possibility of foreign troop escorts of aid convoys, said "if there is any deployment of any armed personnel on Libyan ground, there will be fighting, and the Libyan government will not take this as a humanitarian mission" but as a military one.
Asked whether he would rule out such deployment, he told reporters in Tripoli: "Yes, because we are doing our utmost not to resort to such things." He said the Libyan government has repeatedly offered to help humanitarian agencies do their work.
Kaim also said NATO airstrikes have knocked out telecommunications in the central Libyan towns of Sirte, Brega and Ras Lanouf. He alleged the strikes were meant to help the rebels advance westward, into areas controlled by Gaddafi`s forces.
In Misrata, NATO strikes only targeted radars and air defenses Tuesday, said Abdel-Salam, a resident who identified himself only by his given name for fear of retaliation.
NATO Brig. Gen. Mark van Uhm said fighting has been intense in the city for the past 10 days and that his forces have destroyed more than 40 tanks and several armored personnel carriers there.
"The situation on the ground is fluid there, with ground being won and lost by both sides," van Uhm said at NATO headquarters in Brussels, adding: "Gaddafi`s forces have shelled Misrata indiscriminately."
But he cautioned that "there is a limit to what can be achieved by airpower to stop fighting in a city."
"We are doing everything to prevent civilian casualties by our own attacks (while) degrading (Gaddafi`s) ability to sustain forces there," he said.
Concerning the EU`s contingency plans, he said that "there has been no need for armed escorts until now."
"Until now, it has not been necessary to use armed escorts, and since the port of Misrata is still open, we don`t see the need," he told reporters.
NATO`s Di Paola said in Rome that even though NATO operations have done "quite significant damage" to the Libyan regime`s heavy weaponry, what Gaddafi has left is "still considerable."
Asked if more NATO air power and bombing are needed, Di Paola said any "significantly additional" allied contribution would be welcome.
Given NATO`s humanitarian mandate reflecting the U.N. Security Council resolution on Libya, which does not allow ground forces, "it`s very difficult" to stop the regime`s firepower on Misrata, he said.
"What is significant is we`re preventing Gaddafi from using the full potential of his firepower. Unfortunately we`re not able so far to deny him use of all his firepower," Di Paola said.
Di Paola said the alliance had "yet to succeed" in neutralizing the mortars and rocket launchers, especially inside Misrata, where it is "very hard" to destroy that firepower without inflicting civilian casualties.
World Food Program spokeswoman Emilia Casella says the U.N. agency signed an agreement with the Libyan Red Crescent to establish a humanitarian corridor in western Libya and "we received an indication that the government did not have any objection."
Casella said WFP trucks are already bringing food to feed 50,000 people for one month. The food will be distributed by the Libyan Red Crescent in Tripoli, Zintan, Yefrin, Nalut, Mizda, Al Reiba and Zawiya.
Separately, the U.N. humanitarian chief said she was assured the U.N. would be permitted to visit Misrata and other towns to assess the humanitarian need.
World Health Organization spokesman Tariq Jasarevic said that hospitals in Misrata are overwhelmed with casualties.
"They have difficulties conducting surgeries because the capacity is overstretched and 120 patients need evacuation," he told reporters in Geneva.