France and Germany clash over Libya no-fly zone

Libya rebels.jpg

France pressured G8 foreign ministers yesterday (14 March) to agree action on Libya and back its efforts to speed up a UN Security Council decision on imposing a no-fly zone, but hit opposition from partners like Germany.

Libya dominated talks between President Nicolas Sarkozy and Group of Eight foreign ministers including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ahead of a formal dinner to kick off the first gathering of France's G8 presidency.

France and Britain have led calls to impose a no-fly zone on Libya and French diplomatic sources said Paris was pushing the issue hard with G8 foreign ministers at talks that will wind up with a news conference on Tuesday afternoon.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called for urgent talks in the United Nations Security Council for targeted sanctions on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's regime, but voiced opposition towards military action.

"We are very sceptical about a military intervention and a no-fly zone is a military intervention," he told reporters after the dinner with his G8 counterparts.

Time running short

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told reporters separately that along with Germany, Russia had argued that a no-fly zone would not be effective and may be counterproductive.

The UN Security Council on Monday discussed the Arab League's weekend call for a UN no-fly zone, but no consensus emerged among its 15 members and Russia raised questions about the proposal.

China opposes any use of force, but it is not a member of the G8.

Frattini said the G8 would not push specifically for a no-fly zone but would urge the Security Council to discuss a new set of measures "leading to the cessation of violence".

Among other scenarios were to create a safe haven or to involve Arab League states, he said, but time was running short.

"If you talk about a safe haven for humanitarian reasons, or a ceasefire or whether and how Arab League states can be practically involved on the ground, then on these three important pillars we should move ahead very rapidly, otherwise it will be too late."

Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hidenodu Sobashima also sounded a note of caution about a no-fly zone, raising doubts that such action would be possible without backing from the UN Security Council.

Muammar Gaddafi's troops are using tanks and planes to crush rebel forces fighting to end 41 years of authoritarian rule, and security analysts fear the Libyan leader could retake control (see 'Background').

Gesture of support

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held a private, 45-minute meeting late on Monday night with Mahmoud Jebril, a member of the Libyan National Council opposition group that is seeking international support in its fight against forces loyal to Gaddafi for control of the country.

"They had a private and candid conversation about ways in which the United States can assist the Libyan people in their efforts against the Gaddafi regime," said Philippe Reines, a State Department spokesman travelling with Clinton.

In a gesture of engagement, Obama last week said he would select a representative to the Libyan opposition. A US official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the representative was Chris Stevens, a US diplomat who was until recently deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Tripoli.

The officials stressed the US view that it wants greater clarity on what the Arab League envisages for a no-fly zone and that it wants greater, if unspecified, support from Arab nations for such an endeavour.

"To the extent that the Arab League believes that certain actions should be taken, we are encouraging them to take the lead in actually carrying out those actions," said a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official said that G8 foreign ministers had discussed a variety of options, including a possible no-fly zone, the creation of "safety zones" inside Libya, and imposing additional sanctions on the North African oil exporter.

No option ruled out

With violence worsening, "no option can be ruled out," French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero told a news briefing.

He said the conclusions of an 11 March EU summit and the Arab League's call for a no-fly zone were strong indications of international will to protect civilians in Libya.

The crisis in Japan – where a massive earthquake and tsunami have killed at least 10,000 people and caused a nuclear accident – and unrest across North Africa will be on the table at the G8 talks, which group the foreign ministers of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said before travelling to Paris that international powers should consider arming Libyan rebels, even though that would require lifting a United Nations arms embargo on the country.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

The European Union has sent a mission to the rebel-held eastern town of Benghazi in Libya, a spokeswoman for the bloc's foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said on Monday, AFP reported.

"The objective of the mission is to gather information and assess the situation to support ongoing prudent planning in response to the Libyan crisis," the spokeswoman said.

The EU mission was in Benghazi on Sunday and Monday. Its work "follows on from the technical visit to Tripoli the previous week," the spokeswoman added.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces are pressing closer to the opposition stronghold of Benghazi.

Libyan government artillery and tanks have retaken the small town of Zuwarah, 120 km (70 miles) west of Tripoli.

Perhaps more significantly, they are shrinking the swathe of eastern Libya still held by revolutionary forces.

They captured the important eastern oil terminal town of Brega late on Sunday, and on Monday Libyan jets flew behind rebel lines to bomb Ajdabiyah, the only sizeable town between Brega and the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

Ajdabiyah commands roads to Benghazi and Tobruk that could allow Gaddafi's troops to encircle Libya's second city and its 300,000 inhabitants.

Libyans in Tobruk, a city close to Egypt, fear that Muammar Gaddafi's forces will try to seize their city to block food supply routes to the rest of rebel-held eastern Libya.

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