France steps up Libya no-fly zone efforts

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France promised yesterday (13 March) to step up efforts to persuade its partners to impose a no-fly zone on Libya after the plan won the backing of the Arab League.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said the group, which met on Saturday (12 March), had officially asked the UN Security Council to impose such a zone "against any military action against the Libyan people".

Arab support satisfies one of three conditions NATO set last week to take on the task of policing Libyan air space, as requested by the rebels challenging Muammar Gaddafi's four-decade rule of the oil-producing North African country.

At an EU summit on Friday (11 March), European leaders said all necessary options would be considered and those responsible will be held accountable and face grave consequences. EU leaders also promised to work together with the African Union, the United Nations and the Arab League to solve the crisis.

The League's call showed the international community wanted "to assure the protection of the civilian population in Libya and the respect of international humanitarian rights in the face of the terrible violence suffered by the Libyan population," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in a statement.

"In order to complete these objectives, France will accelerate its efforts in the coming hours in consultation with its partners in the European Union, the Arab League, the UN Security Council and the transitional Libyan National Council."

Gaddafi forces rebels to retreat

Meanwhile, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces appear to have regained the momentum in a three-week-old conflict against the uprising inspired by popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.

Government troops seized the strategic Libyan oil town of Brega yesterday (13 March), forcing rebels to retreat under a heavy bombardment and limiting their access to fuel.

Gaddafi's troops have also retaken the western city of Zawiya and the eastern cities of Bin Jawad and Ras Lanuf.

Abdul Fattah Younis, chief of staff of the rebel army and former interior minister in Gaddafi’s government, told reporters that rebel forces had conducted a strategic retreat from Brega. And he vowed to protect Ajdabiya, the next rebel-held town to the east, 49 miles from Brega.

About 100 commandos from Unit 777 – which has had French, German and US trainers – are said to be providing assistance to the rebels.

The Libyan military said Sunday that its troops were pressing onward toward the eastern port city of Benghazi, a key stronghold of rebel forces and the centre of rebel command.

International response

France has been playing a leading role in the international response to the uprising, especially in its calls with Britain to secure UN support for a no-fly zone resolution.

Juppe said the Group of Eight foreign ministers would discuss Libya at a meeting starting in Paris today (14 March).

At the United Nations, a diplomat told Reuters the Security Council would hold consultations on a no-fly zone today. Russia and China, diplomats said, would have difficulty vetoing authorisation for a no-fly zone now that the Arab League had requested one.

Contagion fears

Other countries, notably the United States and EU states such as Germany, remain very cautious about military engagement.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be in Europe today and then head to Middle East for a round of diplomacy focusing on the Libyan uprising and the new governments in Tunisia and Egypt.

"The international community is dragging its feet," said Saad Djebbar, a London lawyer and expert on Libyan affairs, speaking to Reuters. "The diplomatic pace is very slow. There is an urgency to act quickly before those people are finished off by Gaddafi's forces."

"The international community has to act now – not only to protect Benghazi from an onslaught but because of what it means for the rest of the world if Gaddafi is allowed to remain the leader of Libya," said Geoff Porter, a US-based political risk consultant who specialises in North Africa.

After the relatively peaceful and speedy overthrow of Arab strongmen in Egypt and Tunisia, Western disarray on Libya may persuade other authoritarian rulers facing unrest, from Yemen to Bahrain, that the best antidote to revolt is violence.

"If they allow Gaddafi to win, that would encourage other Arab despotic regimes to use brutal force against their people to stamp out revolt," Djebbar said. "This will erase the gains of the people power we have seen in Egypt and Tunis."

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

The Libyan uprising, the bloodiest yet against long-serving rulers in the Middle East and North Africa, is triggering a humanitarian crisis, especially on the Tunisian border, where tens of thousands of foreign workers are trying to flee to safety.

Rebels fighting Gaddafi have urged the West to impose a no-fly zone because they are convinced it is the only way to neutralise Muammar Gaddafi's firepower advantage.

Arab leaders' support is now putting pressure on the United States and the European Union to impose a no-fly zone. Western governments have been cautious for fear that such a move could drag them deeper into a complex regional conflict.

No-fly zones were imposed in Iraq between the Gulf wars by the United States, Britain and France, in Bosnia by NATO from 1993-1995, and in NATO's air war against Serbia over Kosovo in 1999. Only the Bosnian one was backed by a specific UN resolution.

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