Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The United States plans to supply Libyan rebels with $25 million in urgent non-lethal aid, bolstering a European effort to help the beleaguered forces battling the army of entrenched leader Moammar Gaddafi.

The U.S. assistance, most of it from Pentagon stocks, represents the first direct American aid to the rebels and comes amid a debate over whether and how to help the Libyan opposition as it struggles to hold ground despite a NATO air campaign against Gaddafi’s forces.

President Obama has informed Congress that he intends to use his “drawdown authority” to provide the $25 million in surplus goods to help protect civilians in rebel-held areas, the Associated Press reported. The list of items is still being revised but includes medical supplies, uniforms, boots, tents, personal protective gear, radios and Halal meals, AP said.

The aid effort came as France pledged to intensify airstrikes against Gaddafi’s forces and Italy joined the French and British in announcing plans to help organize the rebel fighters.

The decisions, announced in Paris and Rome, marked another step toward deeper European involvement in the Libyan uprising as NATO and its allies struggle to break the stalemate there without directly joining the fight on the ground.

In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy met Libyan opposition leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil and agreed to a request to escalate airstrikes being carried out under a NATO air campaign, a presidential aide said. “We will intensify the strikes,” the Associated Press quoted the aide as saying.

In Rome, meanwhile, Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said 10 Italian military instructors would be sent to Libya to help improve the ragtag rebel army. He made the announcement after a meeting with his British counterpart, Liam Fox.

As did Britain in revealing its dispatch of advisers on Tuesday, French and Italian officials emphasized that they had no plans to send ground troops to fight alongside the rebels. They also said the advisers would not provide combat training. Instead, they said experienced military officers from all three nations would work side-by-side to instill more military structure in the ragtag guerrilla units trying to defend the rebel-held cities of Misurata and Ajdabiya from Libyan army assaults.

As the siege of Misurata continued Wednesday, four foreign journalists came under mortar fire while covering fighting near the front line in the city 130 miles east of Tripoli, witnesses said. At least one was apparently killed, and the other three were wounded, according to the witnesses. The journalists were near a group of rebels when Gaddafi loyalist forces fired at the gathering. The journalists, whose names and affiliations were not immediately clear, were taken to a hospital.

Britain, France and Italy have had civilian and military personnel on the ground at rebel headquarters in the eastern city of Benghazi for some time. But the new teams being sent were described as military professionals capable of training rebel officers and organizing a more efficient command network for the ground war.

NATO has been bombing Libyan forces for a month, seeking to degrade the Libyan army and prevent it from attacking civilian populations. But the alliance warned Tuesday that there are limits to the effectiveness of air power alone, particularly given the close-quarters street battles underway in Misurata, Libya’s third-largest city. Rebel leaders there acknowledged that they could not hold out much longer against the repeated shelling by Gaddafi’s forces and appealed for NATO to send troops immediately.

The European dispatch of advisers reflects frustration with the limitations of the NATO air campaign, which has not succeeded in decisively shifting the balance toward the rebellion. The advisers will operate independently of NATO’s command. The three countries are acting outside NATO in part because of the difficulty of getting consensus for such deployments within the alliance.

The British decision was denounced by Gaddafi loyalists in Tripoli as an act of war, with acting Foreign Minister Abdul Ati al-Obeidi describing it as a “step to exacerbate and prolong the conflict.” Libyan officials said their forces would fight any foreign military personnel, even if they were there to escort humanitarian aid convoys — as the European Union has proposed.

The Obama administration has said it will not send ground forces into Libya, and senior U.S. military officials said they have received no instructions to plan such an effort. But the administration has not ruled out what State Department spokesman Mark Toner described Tuesday as stepped-up “non-lethal assistance.” Toner also said that the possibility of arming the rebels has “not been taken off the table.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that the dispatch of military advisers is “fully within the terms” of U.N. resolutions “expressly ruling out a foreign occupation force on Libyan soil.” He said the group of 10 “experienced British military officers” will not be involved in arming opposition forces or helping them plan operations.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters in Paris that France will not send ground forces to Libya. But he said Western leaders had probably underestimated Gaddafi’s resolve and his military’s ability to adapt to the coalition air campaign.

Axel Poniatowski, who heads the French Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, had urged the government to assign 200 to 300 special forces troops to rebel units to act as advisers and forward spotters for NATO pilots as they seek to distinguish Libyan army targets from surrounding civilian areas.

“In this situation, we can be much more effective with special forces on the ground to designate targets,” Poniatowski said on Europe1 radio in Paris.

Rifts among the allies

As Western frustration with the limits of air power has grown, NATO officials have begun sniping at one another behind the scenes. Some have bemoaned President Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. aircraft from the strike mission, while others have expressed irritation at ongoing French complaints that some member nations are not doing their part.

Since command of the operation switched from the United States to NATO, French officials have complained about the difficulty in getting targeting information that is timely and precise enough to permit bombing without causing civilian casualties. This has been a recurring obstacle to effective attacks on Libyan military vehicles and artillery, they say, and is one reason that many nations in the 28-member alliance have barred their aircraft from taking part in the bombing.

Although more than a dozen NATO countries have contributed to the air campaign, only six are currently flying strike missions: France, Britain, Canada, Norway, Denmark and Belgium.

The need to avoid civilian casualties is a particular impediment in Misurata because areas of control constantly shift and the fighting is block by block, said NATO’s chief of allied operations, Brig. Gen. Mark van Uhm. In addition, he charged, Libyan army commanders have deliberately placed tanks and artillery near civilian buildings to make it hard for NATO warplanes to hit them.

The British advisers will be assigned to the British diplomatic representation in Benghazi, the rebel capital, which is an embassy in all but name. France, which recognizes the rebels’ Transitional National Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, has a full-fledged embassy in Benghazi with military personnel assigned to it.

The United States and other NATO countries also have representatives on the ground in Benghazi, and they agreed at an alliance meeting last week in Berlin to coordinate their efforts. Toner said the allies on the ground were talking about “ways to improve communications and ways to help the opposition,” a goal that appeared to go beyond humanitarian assistance.

U.N. food convoy rolls out

In Brussels, officials said the 27 European Union states would be willing to launch a military mission to protect aid deliveries if the United Nations asked for it. But the United Nations said it would first prefer to pursue civilian options, and on Tuesday the U.N. World Food Program said it had started sending food into government-controlled western Libya for the first time since violence erupted in the country.

A convoy of eight trucks loaded with 240 metric tons of wheat flour and 9.1 metric tons of high-energy biscuits — enough to feed nearly 50,000 people for 30 days — crossed into western Libya on Monday from the Tunisian border town of Ras Jdir.

Obeidi, the Libyan acting foreign minister, ruled out a pause in the shelling of Misurata to allow humanitarian aid into the city and said this could come only in the context of a cease-fire across the entire country, monitored by international observers.


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