EU divisions grow over Libya operations

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EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels yesterday (21 March) admitted they were divided over how to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya, but agreed to extend sanctions on the Gaddafi regime and carry on offering humanitarian assistance.

Speaking to the press, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé hailed as "a success" military operations launched last weekend in Libya, in which France, the UK and the USA have played a leading role.

The operation prevented the rebel city of Benghazi from becoming "a bloodbath", Juppé stressed.

However, the French minister made no secret of difficulties between allies regarding the Libya operations. Italy in particular has been calling for a NATO operation to replace the current "coalition of the willing".

UK Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament in London last Friday that operational command of the no-fly zone would be transferred to NATO. But he did not say when.

Juppé made clear that the Arab League does not want to see NATO in the driving seat of the operations. Reportedly, France itself would also like to avoid a situation in which Russia, China and other nations that abstained when the UN Security Council resolution was passed become even more antagonised by NATO taking centre stage in the operations.

According to diplomats, NATO will play a secondary role. Indeed, Juppé said the Alliance was prepared "to provide support" in the "coming days".

A NATO role would require political support from all the 28 members of the alliance, which includes Turkey. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Ankara wanted several conditions to be met for NATO to play a role.

Erdoğan said Turkey wanted the international military operation against Gaddafi's forces to be concluded as soon as possible, so Libyans could settle their own future. He also said military intervention must not end with an occupation.

Juppé did not attempt to hide differences of opinion with his German colleague Guido Westerwelle. The German foreign minister stressed once again that his country would not participate in military action, adding that Berlin was aware of "the risks" of the operation and that it was "listening closely" to the Arab League's concerns.

Amr Moussa, head of the 22-member Arab League said he respected the UN resolution authorising military action in Libya, but questioned the need for such heavy bombardment, which he said had killed many civilians. The Gaddafi regime claims that 48 civilians were killed on the first night of strikes against military targets, a figure that cannot be verified independently.

Juppé denied suggestions that the Libya operations had marked a shift in policy, with France replacing its traditional partner Germany with the UK instead. Paris remains a strong partner with Berlin on many issues, such as governance of the euro zone, he said. "The fact that we speak to each other honestly with Westerwelle also shows that we have things in common," he added.

Other EU countries, including Poland, said they did not intend to take part in military action in Libya. The most critical of all was Bulgaria, whose Prime Minister Boyko Borissov went as far as calling it "an adventure" and accusing France and Britain of pursuing "oil interests" in Libya.

The EU ministers agreed to extend the Union's sanctions on Libya.

High Representative Catherine Ashton is expected to propose how EU governments can use naval forces to support humanitarian efforts such as the evacuation of refugees, paving the way for talks on the subject at a summit of EU leaders on Thursday and Friday (24-25 March).

Positions: 

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates outlined the limits of planned US military involvement, saying the United States would not have a "pre-eminent role" in maintaining a no-fly zone and expected to turn over primary responsibility for the mission to others within days, Reuters reported.

He said Britain or France could take charge of the air operation, or NATO could lead it, if sensitivities in the Arab League over working under NATO leadership were assuaged.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev appeared to criticise Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who appeared on television speaking to workers at a missile factory in central Russia. Putin criticised the UN resolution, saying, "the whole thing reminds me of some kind of medieval call to the crusades".

"It's absolutely unacceptable to use phrases that in effect lead to conflict between civilisations, such as 'crusades,' and the like," Medvedev said.

Officials denied a split between the two leaders. It is more likely that carefully-staged tactics of "good cop - bad cop" could bring benefits to Russian diplomacy, observers said.

China stepped up its criticism of the Libya operation, with official newspapers accusing countries involved in the air campaign of breaking international rules and courting new turmoil in the Middle East.

"It should be seen that every time military means are used to address crises, that is a blow to the United Nations charter and the rules of international relations," said a commentary in the People's Daily.

Timeline: 
  • 24-25 March: EU summit.
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