Thursday, March 31, 2011

The CIA has sent a small, covert team into rebel-held eastern Libya while the White House debates whether to arm the opposition, NPR has confirmed.

The operatives are in Libya to gather intelligence to help direct NATO airstrikes and to help train inexperienced rebel fighters.

"The CIA team is there to train them how to shoot, how to fight, how to have military discipline," NPR's Deborah Amos reported from Cairo. "They are joining a team of former Libyan military officers who are now training about 30,000 young Libyans in the rebel stronghold to also improve discipline, improve communications and make it into a more coherent fighting force."

The move was authorized after President Obama signed what's called a "finding," a legal step necessary before the CIA can carry out secret operations, NPR's Tom Bowman reported.

"They'll no longer be able to say that the coalition is there only to protect civilians," Bowman said.

The White House has made no comment on the CIA teams, but President Obama said Wednesday on NBC that he was not ruling out arming the rebels. Britain's prime minister and France's foreign minister have also suggested that direct military assistance to the rebels was under consideration.

Battlefield setbacks are hardening the U.S. view that the poorly equipped rebels are probably is incapable of prevailing without decisive Western intervention, a senior American intelligence official told The Associated Press.

In another blow to Libya's government, Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa — one of Gadhafi's closest allies — defected to Britain on Wednesday. U.K. officials said he is talking and will not be immune from prosecution.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the resignation showed the regime is "fragmented, under pressure and crumbling."

Koussa flew by private jet from Tunisia to southern England of his own free will and then announced his resignation, according to British officials. The officials said he has been talking voluntarily and that they hope to glean information on Gadhafi's state of mind.

A Libyan government spokesman refused to confirm outright that Koussa had defected.

"We are not waiting for individuals to lead the struggle," Moussa Ibrahim told reporters in Tripoli on Thursday. "This is the struggle of a whole nation. We are not relying on individuals, no matter how high-ranking they are. And so if everyone feels tired or sick or exhausted, they want to take a rest, it just happens. But I'm not confirming anything."

Hague said Koussa was in a "secure place in the United Kingdom," but that he "is not being offered any immunity from British or international justice." dampened speculation that the British government might seek to overlook allegations leveled by Libya's opposition that he had a pivotal role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people, most of them Americans.

Before assuming the post of foreign minister, Koussa served for over a decade as Libya's foreign intelligence chief and is seen as one of Gadhafi's inner cadre. Koussa is not the first high-ranking member of the regime to quit — the justice and interior ministers resigned early in the conflict and joined the rebellion based in the east.

"Gadhafi must be thinking to himself, 'Who will be the next to walk away'?" Hague said.

Adding to pressure on Gadhafi's regime, the U.S., Britain and France have made clear that they are open to the possibility of supplying weapons to the rebels, though no decisions have been made.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that no decision has been made yet: "We're not ruling it out or ruling it in."

But NATO's chief said Thursday that the alliance doesn't support U.S. and British suggestions that the U.N. mandate for the international military operation in Libya allows for the arming of rebels Gadhafi's troops.

NATO assumed command of all air operations over Libya early Thursday, taking over from the U.S., which had been eager to be rid of that responsibility. NATO Chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Stockholm that NATO's position is that "we are there to protect the Libyan people, not to arm the people."

Britain and the U.S. believe that existing U.N. Security Council resolutions on Libya could allow for foreign governments to arm the rebels, despite an arms embargo being in place.

The NATO secretary-general said he has "taken note of the ongoing discussions in a number of countries but as far as NATO is concerned ... we will focus on the enforcement of the arms embargo."

Fogh Rasmussen said the transition to its command was completed at 2 a.m. EDT Thursday, giving NATO sole responsibility for all aerial and naval operations in the region. A rebellion against Gadhafi's 42-year rule erupted last month, and international forces including the U.S., France and Britain stepped in March 19, just as it appeared Gadhafi was on the verge of crushing the revolt.

Gadhafi's forces were heavily bombarded, effectively turning the U.S.-led air assaults into an unacknowledged aerial arm of the ragtag rebel force fighting the government's army.

The NATO operation — code named Unified Protector — includes enforcement the U.N. Security Council resolution mandating an arms embargo on Libya, enforcement of a no-fly zone and the protection of civilians from Gadhafi's troops.

Despite the setbacks and ongoing NATO airstrikes on government forces, Gadhafi loyalists have been logging successes on the battlefield and reversing a rebel advance westward toward the regime's stronghold in the capital Tripoli. On Thursday, the rebels came under heavy shelling by Gadhafi's forces in the strategic oil town of Brega on the coastal road that leads to Tripoli. Black smoke billowed in the air over Brega as mortars exploded.

"Gadhafi's forces advanced to about 30 kilometers (18 miles) east of Brega," said rebel fighter Fathi Muktar, 41. Overnight, he said the rebels had temporarily pushed them back, but by morning they were at the gates of Brega. "There were loads of wounded at the front lines this morning," he said of rebel casualties.


Post a Comment